Area9 Lyceum Blog

Activity-Based Learning: A Winning Combination of Knowledge Building and Real-World Problem Solving

Posted by Ulrik Juul Christensen MD on Nov 11, 2019 11:45:00 AM
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As algorithms and robotics take over lower-level jobs, and people need to be retrained and equipped with higher-order skills, traditional learning falls short. Corporate learning and development (L&D) must move toward innovative solutions, such as combining the personalization of adaptive learning to build knowledge with “activity-based learning” to put that knowledge into practice.

Too often, work projects are impeded by gaps in knowledge and skill among team members. Not only are people at different levels, but team members are almost certainly unconsciously incompetent about certain aspects of their jobs—meaning they think they know something but, in fact, do not. As a result, individual and collective performance suffers.


It’s an urgent problem, amplified by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These stakes are too high for the status quo in corporate learning and development (L&D), which too often has delivered ineffective training that failed to change behaviors or improve performance. The flaws in L&D are well-known: learner fatigue and dissatisfaction, widespread “check the box” attitudes for compliance training, and little evidence to suggest that traditional corporate e-learning results in any sustained learning.

To address this issue, more effective training must be implemented to build knowledge and skills, with the reinforcement of tackling real-world problems in the technology-driven workplace. Enter activity-based learning.

Activity-based learning can improve knowledge acquisition and retention and elevate job performance by seamlessly combining training and work activities. This best-of-both-worlds approach helps ensure that knowledge and skills are acquired and transferred into day-to-day practice with a high degree of competence. Because the problems and scenarios addressed are job specific and highly relevant, workers are more likely to be engaged in training and motivated to learn.

Activity-based learning falls under a category known as learning in the flow of work, which is gaining attention in corporate L&D. As Bersin research from Deloitte states, “The convergence of learning and work has created new challenges for the L&D function, bringing L&D out of HR and into the lifeblood of the organization. Organizations are experimenting with how best to embed learning [in] the flow of work…”

As industries, sectors, and businesses continue to be disrupted by technology and emerging competitors, organizations must ensure that their training keeps pace. As researchers have stated for years, “To remain competitive, organizations and countries must ensure that their workforce continually learns and develops. Training and development activities allow organizations to adapt, compete, excel, innovate, produce, be safe, improve service, and reach goals.”

Given this reality, classroom learning and traditional e-learning with no personalization cannot suffice. Nor can organizations use training and instruction to cram as much information as possible into people’s heads in hopes they will retain and use it. Instead, knowledge and activity must be blended into a seamless solution.

More Than “On the Job” or “Learning by Doing”

In order to more fully appreciate activity-based learning, it is important to understand what it is not. It goes well beyond “learning by doing,” which is often completely experiential. Without a baseline of “learning,” the “doing” can be a struggle. Purely on-the-job learning in which employees are trained by coworkers or managers may or may not provide individuals with the support they need. As a result, there is no guarantee that actual training occurs.

In contrast, activity-based learning is designed to go hand-in-hand with knowledge and skill acquisition to tackle real-world problems that are relevant to the learner’s job. Whether people are trying to build a better bicycle or solve a complex problem, the focus is on what needs to get done, with the learning wrapped around it.

Imagine a sales team being trained on an innovative new product. But instead of focusing solely on the features and benefits of the product, a second phase is integrated into the instruction: putting that knowledge immediately into practice with mock sales presentations.

As an activity-based learning exercise, these practice sales interactions increase familiarity with the new product and improve knowledge retention. But that’s not all. As a group exercise, the experience of making and critiquing sales presentations builds collaboration skills, which are essential in today’s complex world.

In fact, collaboration is one of the key 21st century skills—along with communication, creativity, and critical thinking—identified by researcher Charles Fadel as being essential for success. These 21st century skills elevate the role of humans, particularly to take on more complex jobs as automation and robotics continue to make in-roads into the workplace.

As part of their collaboration, the sales team practices giving and receiving feedback, which many people avoid because it’s perceived as uncomfortable. But there is learning science that makes a compelling case for moving beyond that discomfort and encouraging team members to coach each other. In a large-scale field experiment, high school students who gave advice to younger peers became better learners, themselves. The advice-givers practiced what they preached, which led to better study habits and becoming more motivated and confident. In other words, they developed a “growth mindset.”

These findings from the experiment apply directly to the sales training scenario: as team members coach each other, they are likely to become better presenters, themselves. As a result, the entire team can become more effective at their jobs, individually and collectively.

Activity-Based Learning at Scale

As promising as this sounds, it can be challenging to roll out activity-based learning in the work environment, with personalization that is specific to learners’ needs and their jobs. What’s more, training today must be efficient to keep people productive in a fast-paced environment. Technology clearly plays a role in delivering knowledge and activity-based learning at scale, across the widest possible audience.

Computer-based adaptive learning is a cornerstone of the solution. Personalized and scalable, adaptive learning builds knowledge and skills by providing the necessary support and reinforcement for each individual. It is crucial for uncovering and correcting unconscious incompetence.

While adaptive learning has typically been used for individual instruction, it also can be tailored to give learners opportunities to collaborate with each other. For example, in addition to questions (probes) that assess competence in specific knowledge and skills, other probes can direct learners to give and receive feedback on a project, presentation, or other group activity. This opens the door for leveraging the scalability of adaptive learning technology and the effectiveness of activity-based learning.

Area9 Lyceum is developing a suite of activity-based learning tools to put knowledge and skills into practice. Customizable to specific jobs and tasks, activity-based learning focuses on real-world problems and scenarios—even to the point of incorporating work projects into learning objectives. Adaptable, scalable, and personalized, this approach builds competence and confidence, while increasing performance among individuals and across entire teams.

Topics: Adaptive Learning, Sales Training, Activity Based Learning