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Characteristics of Effective Training Programs

The importance of training is something we can all agree on… well… as long as we are not in the classroom.  Often, trainees themselves dread training because of long and boring training sessions, bad experiences during training, or a general dislike of anything that reminds them of college lectures.  However, organizations understand that training has a significant positive effect on job-related behaviors and individual performance, otherwise what would be the point—right?

Outcomes of Training

The good news is that research supports this assumption, showing immediate and long-term positive impacts of training.  Immediate outcomes include learning, skill development, and positive behavior change.  Training has consistently been shown to have positive long-term impacts as well.  Six months to a year out, they have moderately strong effects on trainee job performance and organizational outcomes including increased profitability and reduced turnover (Arthur et al., 2003).

In the most comprehensive study to date comparing the effectiveness of various organizational development (OD) interventions to date, Guzzo, Jette, and Katzell revealed that training interventions lead to stronger and more consistent gains in productivity than most other OD processes, including:  performance feedback, management by objectives, work redesign, supervisory methods, and decision-making strategies (Guzzo, Jette, & Katzell, 1985).  In fact, the only method that has been shown to have a stronger impact on performance is goal-setting (Locke & Latham, 2002).

Characteristics of Effective Training Programs

However, not all training is created equal.  The extent to which training can influence learning, behavior change, performance, and profitability depends largely on how it has been designed and delivered.  The following features have been directly associated with improved employee and organizational outcomes:

  • Start with a training needs assessment:  This is a systematic process to determine who needs to be trained (i.e., who needs improved KSAs), what they need training on (i.e., what tasks need to be improved), and how the training process will be supported and aligned with strategic objectives (Surface, 2012).
  • Identify and communicate purpose, objectives, and outcome:  These are identified based on the results of the training needs assessment and must be communicated to trainees in a clear and easy-to-understand way.  When communication includes a message on how the training will be applied and what the expected outcomes are, motivation to learn increases (Noe, 2008).
  • Relevant content:  To be effective, training must include content that is directly linked to trainee job experiences (Noe & Colquitt, 2002).  This makes intuitive sense, but when ignored it can reduce the impact of training on performance to zero.  Just think about the training sessions you’ve attended that have been unrelated to your daily work-life.
  • Active demonstration:  Trainers need to actively demonstrate the specific skills and processes included in the training.  Conducting these live demonstrations provides trainees with a model of desired behavior and results in greater learning and transfer of training, regardless of the topic (Noe & Colquitt, 2002).  For example, if the training is on interpersonal communications the trainer might demonstrate active listening skills through a role-play with a willing participant.  For an engine-repair class, the trainer might bring an engine and demonstrate how to bore out the cylinders.
  • Opportunities for practice:  Effective training programs include multiple opportunities for trainees to practice the skills they’ve learned during class-time.  By building application exercises into the training workshops themselves, you provide trainees with a safe place to try new skills, where they can make mistakes and not worry about consequences (Noe & Colquitt, 2002).
  • Regular feedback during training:  Trainers also need to give feedback to employees while they are practicing their new skills.  Feedback should be given both during practice and after exercises have been completed (Noe & Colquitt, 2002).  It should also be directly related to how the trainee performed the task and never be focused on personal characteristics.  For example, bad feedback might be “You are being such a clutz,” whereas better feedback would be “I noticed you dropped the lever a few times because you’re grip is incorrect.  Let me show you…”  (to learn more about the characteristics of effective feedback, read this article)
  • Post-training environment:  After training it is important that employees are given opportunities to perform the skills they’ve learned.  If the post-training environment does not support this, research has shown that training will have little to no impact on trainee performance and organizational utility; that is, little or no ROI (Arthur et al., 2003).

Training programs that include these characteristics will consistently result in better employee outcomes (learning, behavior change, job performance) and organizational impact (utility, performance, turnover).  And of course designing a training program is much more complicated than just following the rules above (e.g., you have to determine the method of training deliver, training materials, etc.).  This article is meant to be a reminder to focus on the things that really matter.

Happy training!



Additional Resources:


Arthur, W., Jr., Bennett Jr., W., Edens, P. S., & Bell, S. T. (2003). Effectiveness of training in organizations: A meta-analysis of design and evaluation features. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 234–245.
Guzzo, R. A., Jette, R. D., & Katzell, R. A. (1985). The effects of psychologically based intervention programs on worker productivity: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 38, 275-291.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35 year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705–717.
Noe, R. A. (2008). Employee training and development (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Irwin-McGraw.
Noe, R. A., & Colquitt J. A. (2002). Planning for training impact: Principles of training effectiveness. In K. Kraiger (Ed.), Creating, implementing, and maintaining effective training and development: State-of-the-art lessons for practice (pp. 53–79). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Surface, E. A. (2012). Training needs assessment: Aligning learning and capability with performance requirements and organizational objectives. In M. A. Wilson, W. Bennett, S. Gibson, & G. M. Alliger (Eds.), The handbook of work analysis: The methods, systems, applications and science of work measurement in organizations (pp. 439–464). New York, NY: Routledge Academic.

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