What is hands-on learning?

Also known as experiential learning, hands-on learning is the more effective way in developing people’s skills.

Hands-on learning is exactly how it sounds: it’s developing new knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) through active learning and direct hands-on experiences. Put simply, it’s learning by doing. The approach enables people to be immersed in the environment they’ll be working in as they build and practice new skills on the way to achieving competency.

Rather than attending a lecture or viewing a PowerPoint presentation, hands-on learning requires active participation. For example, tech professionals learning the ins and outs of software or technology can practice in one of the different types of virtual IT labs where they can complete objectives or tasks similar to what they’ll do on the job.

What are the benefits of hands-on learning?

Traditional training methods have their place; however, there are some skills that can’t be learned in the traditional manner—at least not effectively. The pedagogy of actually performing the tasks and applying KSAs in a safe environment where learners can “fail forward,” receive immediate feedback and accomplish tasks on their own is significantly more effective. The Learning Pyramid shows that learners retain 30% more learning material and are more engaged with hands-on learning. The importance of hands-on learning cannot be ignored. Yet it eludes many corporate training programs and a huge factor to why the job readiness gap exists.

The approach brings additional benefits, including…

Increases learners’ confidence backed by real evidence.

Only 12% of learners can apply new skills learned in learning and development (L&D) programs and apply them to real-world scenarios correctly. In contrast, hands-on learning provides learners with a safe environment in which to freely experiment and make mistakes. Once the primary training effort of developing new skills is complete, hands-on learners are more prepared and, therefore, more confident in making the connection between training concepts and actual work. Additionally, the proof of skill garnered by hands-on experiences proves to Instructors/Training Managers that learners are ready for on-the-job work.

Adult learners need to “get stuck” in a safe environment where they make mistakes and continue to try until they discover the proper solution. Hands-on learning encourages people to develop the mindset and skills necessary to figure out problems.

Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, Distinguished Research Professor and Professor at UCLA, discuss the role of “desirable difficulties” that create initial challenges, but then benefit the learner with better transfer and retention. Nick Thompson, Director of Leadership and Employee Engagement at Engage, points to the opportunity for IT leaders to adopt challenge-centric learning as a method for people to develop the mindset and skills necessary to figure out higher level problems.

Improves peoples’ critical thinking skills.

People who are presented with real-world problems to solve must think through to the root of the objective/problem. They must be focused on the task at hand. By continuously rethinking and reviewing tasks or objectives and resolving them through hands-on practice, learners increase their critical thinking skills.

In a software training setting, it’s also the most effective way to engage people . It encourage them to explore the interface, try new things, make mistakes and ultimately, accomplish a task.

Adult learners will learn more at a faster pace if they’re able to work through situations and figure things out on their own. Exploring and discovery are part of the larger learning process. As such, good instructional designers know they can’t do that for the learner. The learner alone must initiate action. The trick is to design activities that cause the leaner to act on content, which will spark feedback (both positive and negative reinforcement). When learners act, essential neural connections are made and real learning occurs.

Advances the ability to identify and overcome skills gaps and strengthens skill development.

McKinsey reports that 87% of companies worldwide either have skills gaps or expect to in the next few years. Hands-on training more effectively closes those skills gaps by providing more engaging, relevant hands-on practice which strengthens skill development.

For example, a recent study around safety training found that material delivered through active methods such as hands-on activities, group discussions and gamification resulted in higher knowledge retention. Learners remembered 93.5% more of previously learned information compared to 79% of passive learners after one month.

What does the best hands-on learning for digital skills look like?

There is no effective substitute for hands-on learning; however, the way hands-on learning is approached matters. Adult learners develop skill mastery and confidence through hands-on learning experiences that validate the outcomes of their actual performance. Put simply, they excel when they “learn while doing.”

The best hands-on learning environments for digital skills include:

  • Provide the same tools, technology and environments that people will use on the job to complete real-world tasks
  • Real-time feedback that informs the learner of where they’re “getting it” and where they need more instruction
  • Ways to provide the learner varying levels of tips and guidance based on their skill level and comfort (i.e., adaptive learning)
  • Ability to scale learning experiences cost-effectively, securely and strategically
  • Methodologies to keep content current in the face of rapid technology change
  • Analytics and reporting that provide both proof of completion and training data to make informed decisions on skilling needs and gaps
  • And the pinnacle, the ability to incorporate validated skills development and performance testing (PBT), both of which provide proof of skill and that people are, in fact, “job ready.”

Learn how Skillable can help you get started with Hands-on learning.

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