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Learning vs Training: What is the Difference?

Kathryn Stewart

The Difference Between Learning vs Training

Create educational content that truly makes a difference and does more than just exist!  

In an effort to better understand the difference between learning vs training, let’s play a quick matching activity. Would you associate the following situations with “learning” or “training”?

  1. Susan’s job performance improved after she attended a conference on industry trends.
  2. 67 employees completed their company’s annual biohazards compliance course.  
  3. Alan is now able to overcome customers’ common objections because he has gained experience in doing so successfully after several months on the job.    
  4. Lupe created an eLearning course to educate other employees on the features of their company’s new product.  

Situation 1 is a clear example of learning; Susan participated in a formal learning experience and was able to apply new knowledge on the job and improve her performance afterwards. Situation 2 shows training; all we know is how many people completed the course. What we don’t know is how effective it was. Situation 3 brings us back to learning; like Susan, through informal, on-the-job experiences Alan has learned how to achieve his performance goals.  

Situation 4 is not as straightforward as the others. Lupe created a training course, but ideally her intention is for the other employees to learn.  

So what is the distinction between learning vs training?  

Is It Training or Learning?

We define “training” as a tool or process that helps people learn, commonly in the workplace. Training topics may include role-specific or company orientation, compliance topics such as safety practices, and skill-related topics such as how to perform basic job functions.  

“Learning” goes a bit deeper. Connie Malamed, the eLearning Coach, shares ten definitions of learning, including, “Acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” as stated in the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel.  

Learning can (and should) be the result of training, but learning is not the automatic outcome of training.  

Learning happens when people are engaged, when they find value in the content, and when they are able to apply it to their everyday lives. Workplace training all too commonly doesn’t meet these basic criteria. Think back to the last compliance course you completed at work. Maybe the topic was bloodborne pathogen awareness or preventing sexual harassment. You might be able to recall the topic, but can you recall the learning objectives? Did the content or delivery method inspire you to take action or change your behavior in any way? Did you actually learn?  

Workplace training is something employees frequently encounter, and we believe that with the right practices, workplace learning can become just as common.  

Is Learning the Result of Your Training Program?

You may be wondering if your training programs are achieving the desired results. In our previous article, we discussed how identifying your business goals, writing and following clear, measurable learning objectives, and focusing on the right metrics are the keys to evaluating the success of your learning programs. Training programs that are designed without consideration of these factors may not lead to learning.

Just because training exists, does not mean that learning has taken place. Quantifiable measures such as the number of course participants, the number of times a video has been played, the number of times a resource has been downloaded, even the number of people who passed a test, do not automatically correlate to learning.  

Learners must be cognitively active to, well, learn.  

Take a moment to consider what your learners are actually doing during your training programs. If they are passively sitting in class, or watching their screens, or scrolling through eLearning courses with no other activity than clicking “Next,” how do those activities teach your content? How are they encouraged to reflect on the content, relate it to their lives, and apply it on the job?  

One Final Thought on Learning vs Training

We’ll leave you with one final situation to consider that will help distinguish learning vs training. Think back to a place where you have experienced a truly impactful learning culture. Maybe it was a favorite teacher of yours from school days, or a job that truly prepared you for the demands of your role, or a coach who gave you new skills that led you to victory. Reflect on the culture of that environment; you felt supported, encouraged, mentally challenged, you could take risks and you likely succeeded and were rewarded when you did so.  

Now ask yourself, does your workplace training create an impactful learning culture? Or does it simply exist?

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