Transferring Learning from Classroom to Workplace - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #281

Transferring Learning from Classroom to Workplace

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Leadership development programs have gained popularity over the years, with rising numbers of organizations sending participants on various courses every day. But how can they ensure that the learning from these programs is effectively applied in the workplace? In this Idea, three key areas are identified that play a vital role in the transfer system.


The need to develop strong leaders and competent managers has increased over the past few years, as technological advances and economic uncertainties have created a more competitive business environment than ever before. But though substantial investment is being poured into leadership development programs, do they actually have a tangible impact on individual and business performance? 

Leadership development involves more than just learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge; to develop as a leader, new behaviours and new ways of working must be learnt, and a change in attitudes is implicit. Transferring this from the classroom to the workplace is something that not only participants of programs, but organizations and program designers need to understand well.

Through their studies, Lee Waller and her fellow researchers identify three key areas that are influential in the transfer of learning:

  • Individual characteristics: whilst all three areas had a positive impact on the transfer of learning, individual characteristics appeared to be the best unique predictor of successful transfer. Within this, three main themes emerged as facilitators: attitudes to program attendance; expected program benefits; and attitudes to applying learning.
  • Program design: this was found to have the weakest influence of these three factors on transfer of learning. According to Waller, there may have been a perception that the skills and knowledge taught on the programs did not as accurately reflect participants’ job requirements. Nevertheless, some participants also felt that the practical sessions during programs did help in the transfer of learning, helping them to understand theory and practice with ways of using it back in the office.
  • Work environment: as above, work environment was also found to have a weak influence on transfer of learning. The most prominent theme reported to hinder transfer was time; participants found that when they returned to work the pressure of heavy workloads made it hard to find the time to try out new ways of working. Resistance to change on the part of colleagues, lack of manager support and busy managers were also reported hindrances.

Methodology: Using questionnaires and telephone interviews, data was collected from participants attending various tailored management development programs. The first questionnaire was completed by 88 participants one week after the programs were held. The second questionnaire was sent 6 weeks after the programs and completed by 72 participants, allowing time for them to have applied what they had learned.
Shortly after completion of the second questionnaire, one-on-one telephone interviews were held with two participants randomly selected from each program to explore their experiences in regards to transferring the learning from the programs. Fourteen participants were interviewed altogether.


Overall, the management development programs studied appeared to have a tangible impact on participants’ skills acquisition and development. However, there is scope for improvement that can improve the long term impact of management development programs, return on investment for organizations, and lead to learning that transfers from the classroom to the workplace.

Though Waller provides a number of suggestions, some of them include the following:

  • Ensure content is tailored to the individual organization and industry, and is appropriate for the participant. In this respect, up-to-date and relevant case studies are crucial.
  • Participants themselves need to ensure they are clear about the benefits of a program, and should identify ways to apply learning to their roles. They should take responsibility for applying that learning back in the workplace, and seek feedback regarding new skills.
  • Organizations must support their employees when they return to work, provide opportunities to utilize new skills, and demonstrate that learning is valued through reward and recognition.



From the Classroom to the Workplace: Enhancing the Transfer of Learning. Lee Waller. Ashridge Business School White Paper (October 2011).

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Idea conceived

October 1, 2011

Idea posted

Dec 2013
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