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The Four Phases of Learning

In the training world, the optimum number seems to be “four.” There are four learning styles, four stages of competence, and a four-level evaluation model.

There is also a four-phase learning cycle.

According to Dave Meier, in The Accelerated Learning Handbook, here is what the cycle encompasses:

Preparation: Arousing Interest
Presentation: Encountering the New Knowledge or Skills
Practice: Integrating the New Knowledge or Skills
Performance: Applying the New Knowledge and Skills

Four Phase Learning Cycle.png

Meier says that unless all four phases of learning are present in a training program in one form or another, no real learning occurs.

Here's a breakdown.

1. Preparation: Arousing Interest

Adult learners need to be ready to engage in the learning process. Barriers are created when learners lack interest, don’t see the benefit of learning, or have negative feelings about either the learning or the content.

The goal of the Preparation Phase is to give them positive feelings about the learning experience, and put them into an optimal state for learning. These are some ways to do this:

  • Arouse the learners’ curiosity by having them raise questions and pose problems for each other.
  • Create a positive social environment incorporating collaborative activities
  • Create a learning community by having everyone select and change learning partners throughout the program.
  • Have learners define their main goals in attending the program and have them share them with other participants.
  • Give each team a course objective and have them come up with as many benefits for that objective as they can.
  • Remove learning barriers by having people write down their own barriers and, in teams, coming up with solutions for overcoming them.
  • Provide positive suggestions by having a display of success stories of previous attendees.

2. Presentation: Encountering the New Knowledge or Skills

Unless adult learners are integrally involved in creating and adapting their own learning content, they don’t learn. They need to initially encounter the new knowledge and skills in ways that are meaningful to them, and incorporating their own learning style, whether visual, auditory, intellectual, or kinesthetic.

The goal of the Presentation Phase is to help the learners encounter the new material in ways that are interesting, enjoyable, relevant, multisensory, and that appeal to all learning styles.

Here are some examples:

  • Collaborative pretests and knowledge sharing
  • Interactive presentations
  • Variety to appeal to all learning styles
  • Partner- and team-based learning projects
  • Discovery exercises (personal, partnered, team-based)
  • Real-world, contextual learning experiences
  • Problem-solving exercises

Practice new skills.png

Practice: Integrating the New Knowledge or Skills

Knowledge is not something a learner absorbs. It is something a learner creates, and it needs time for integration. Learners need to be given time to integrate the new knowledge and skills into their internal structure of self, meaning, beliefs, and skills.

The goal of the Practice Phase is to help learners integrate and incorporate the new knowledge or skill in a variety of ways:

  • Hands-on trial/feedback/reflection/retrial
  • Real-world simulations
  • Learning games
  • Action learning exercises
  • Individual reflection and articulation
  • Partner and team-based dialog
  • Skill building practice activities

Performance: Applying the New Knowledge and Skills

Learners need to have the opportunity to immediately apply what they’ve learned. Without immediate application to the real world, only 5% of the newly learned knowledge and skills is retained. With immediate application—and the proper coaching and support—learners typically retain 90% of the new knowledge and skills.

The goal of the Performance Phase is to help learners apply and extend their new knowledge or skill to the real world. This phase ensures integration of learning into the job as well as continuous performance improvement. These are some approaches:

  • Immediate real world application
  • Creating and executing action plans
  • Follow through reinforcement activities
  • Post session reinforcement materials
  • Ongoing coaching
  • Performance evaluation and feedback
  • Peer support activities

Conventional learning has tended to emphasize the Presentation Phase over all other phases in the learning cycle. When designing a training program, developers put 80% or more money, effort, and time into creating presentation materials.

At best though, the Presentation Phase accounts for only 20% of the learning. And unless preceded by a Preparation Phase and followed by Practice and Performance phases, it is almost completely useless.

The Presentation Phase exists only to initiate the learning process, not to be the center of it. People learn more from experience than they do from presentations and training materials. For most adult learners, learning is a matter of trial, feedback, reflection, and retrial. The presentations and training materials are there simply to initiate and support active learning experiences, nothing more.

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