Friction In Learning: How To Facilitate Training
Sergey Nivens/

Put Training On Autopilot And Take Learning Off

Learning leads to behavior change. At least, this is the goal. Simply wanting to change our behavior is not enough. Ask anyone whose New Year’s resolutions to exercise more or reduce the amount of sugar or meat or alcohol in their diet were broken before the end of January. Even making ourselves accountable by sharing our resolutions and posting about our progress only goes so far—a few days? A week? Although "we believe we control our own learning by conscious choice," researcher Richard Clark wrote, "in fact, nearly all mental operations are highly automated, including learning and problem-solving."

Behavior And Decision-Making Are Often Automatic

People like to think that we are in control of our choices and actions. We’re aware of the behaviors that result from the decisions we make, so we tend to assume that most of our behavior falls into that category. We think that if we set a conscious goal for ourselves—like losing weight—we can deploy our will power and make the choices that will lead to success. But much of what we do is determined deep in our subconscious mind; we’re not aware of how or why we do what we do, even if we think we are. Author Wendy Wood found that much of our behavior—43%— is automatic. That’s why the long-term behavior change that corporate training aims for is so hard to achieve. Many employees are not motivated to make changes. Even for those who are, will power is not enough. But, in a conversation with Shankar Vedantam on NPR’s "Hidden Brain," Wood provided a glimmer of hope: friction.

Friction Is Tricky

According to Wood, increasing friction can make people stop doing something or do things differently. The converse is also true: to develop good habits, it’s not necessary to resist temptations and build strong will power. What works is removing friction and putting a behavior on autopilot. "Habit is not necessarily the easiest thing or the low-effort thing to do. Instead, it's what you usually do that you fall back on," Wood told Vedantam. Automating new desirable behaviors essentially turns them into positive habits. And, if there’s a habit you’re trying to break or you want people to think harder about what they’re doing, the key is adding friction—moving decision-making off of autopilot. The increased awareness allows us to think through what we’re doing and make different, conscious choices.

Friction And Learning

The connection between friction and learning is powerful for training developers. Creating new habits by changing behavior—getting people to do something automatically, whether it’s washing their hands before meeting a patient, donning a hard hat before entering the construction zone, or greeting each customer with a smile and a welcoming phrase—is the ultimate goal of training. Simply training regularly is a habit many Instructional Designers would love to build in their learners. Instructional Designers need to remove friction in order to help learners develop good habits. But they may also need to increase friction to decrease unwanted behaviors. Adding friction makes people think more carefully about what they’re learning and doing.

Reduce The Friction In Training

Ideally, training would be frictionless. Yet some conventional approaches to training, like sending people to a half-day workshop or asking them to register for and set aside time to complete a one-hour eLearning module, create friction. This training takes people out of their routine and disrupts their work. Making it harder for people to do their training prevents them from developing an automatic training habit. Training content can inadvertently create friction as well if learners can’t skip over material they already know or if they are required to train on topics that aren’t relevant to their work. Learners become frustrated and avoid training.

Moving learning into the workflow can reduce friction and help automate the learning behavior. Some microlearning or app-based workflow learning reduces friction by reminding learners to train, keeping sessions short and narrowly focused on topics that are highly relevant. Other in-the-workflow learning and support products make it easy for learners to find the right content, get the information they need, and continue working with minimal interruption of their workday. Less friction means more time focused on training content; this increased engagement leads to better retention.

Increase The Friction For Actual Learning

Although accessing and using training should be friction-free, the content should not. Describing a process for creating automated behaviors—achieving expert-level performance or developing good habits—eLearning expert Patti Shank explains the concept of "overlearning" or practicing until a skill or behavior becomes almost effortless. "The point is this: More effort while learning means less effort while doing," Shank wrote. Adding friction argues against once-and-done training. A single exposure to information or processes is insufficient for deep learning. Instead, learners need repeated practice and exercises that ask them to recall and apply information in a variety of ways.

Interleaving learning about different, but related, topics can add friction by making learners work harder and deepen their learning. They will be making connections among the seemingly disparate pieces of information, which is mentally challenging. This encodes the information more deeply in the learners’ minds, making it more likely that they will retain what they’ve learned.

Providing learners with meaningful feedback throughout the learning process can also add friction and improve outcomes. Meaningful feedback tells learners why a response is correct or incorrect, helping them process the content and quickly correct misconceptions before the errors become fixed in their memories. These instructional strategies slow learners down and force them to think about the learning content and their responses.

Friction In The Right Places Makes Learning Stick

Whether the goal of training is to create automated behaviors or to build expertise, making it easy for learners to engage with learning is the first step. Remove friction from training by ensuring that learners can access it and quickly find relevant information. Once you’ve got them engaged with training though, challenge them to think, question, and stretch their knowledge. Adding friction in learning content makes learning conscious, thoughtful, and more likely to stick. And next year, when you’re setting your New Year’s resolutions, forget about will power. Instead, consider where you need to add or remove friction.