Thursday, December 8, 2011

You can't measure learning, but you can measure behavior

I'm overstating it a bit with the title of this post, because sure, you can measure knowledge acquisition by pre-testing and post-testing, or iterative assessment. I know, I know...we can measure how much someone knows because we have standardized tests! (I really hope the sarcasm is evident in text...)

I spent the last three days at the mHealth Summit in Washington, DC and 19 hours manning the Ayogo booth, talking to amazingly interesting people about the potential of games to improve health outcomes. What mattered to everyone? It wasn't what people know...amazingly, most everyone actually knows what they need to do to be healthier. The challenge is to get people to actually DO those healthy things that will help them better manage their diabetes, reduce their risk for cardiovascular disease, etc.

When it comes to health, but really when it comes to ANYTHING, there is a knowing-doing gap. We all know then why are we as a learning profession settling for assessing knowing? Knowing is not doing. The proof is in the behavior, and behavior can be easily measured.

We live in an age where everything we do is tracked. Do you carry a cell phone? Your wireless carrier knows where you take that phone all day, every day. Do you use a credit card or bank card? All of your purchases are tracked. Do you log onto the Internet? Every site that you visit is logged and recorded (yeah...I delete the history. That just means your kids won't see those sites your visiting...but your Internet service provider still knows).

All of that data, and more...everything you post on Facebook, Twitter...everything you email...anything you do is trackable now. And more ways to track behavior are being created every day...sleep monitors, pedometers, glucose monitors...there is data EVERYWHERE and its all about you. And me. And the guy sitting in traffic next to you who's using his gps.

With all of this data, we can start making predictions about future outcomes. We can target specific communities or subsets of employees, populations, learners. We can provide information to the most relevant audiences in the most appropriate places.

As learning professionals, we should be thinking more closely about the implications of that data and what it means to know so much about a person's current status and the implications for her future status. Can we change the future? Why yes...yes we can. We can observe current behaviors, predict future outcomes, and use our expertise in learning and performance improvement to change behavior to improve those future outcomes.

We have access to so much behavioral data. How do we get people to change their behavior, when we know that people operate in a world of short-term benefit over long-term reward? We're not going to change those behaviors through knowledge training...we'll only change them through behaviorally-focused training. Games, simulations, contextualized practice...immersive learning environments are the bridge between having access to data and changing behavior for better results.

We can, and already do, measure behavior in almost every aspect of our lives. Learning professionals need to stop focusing on knowledge and start focusing on behavioral change as the basis of our design practice or risk obsolescence (see: Instructional Design is Dead). Our jobs aren't about making sure people know things...they are about making sure people can do things better. We can design those experiences and measure those outcomes. If we aren't doing that, we're not doing our jobs.

Gauntlet thrown. 


  1. Hi Koreen,

    I believe you hit the target about designing for immersive learning environments (designing an experience). In an article by Fast Company, Change or Die, they tell the story of coronary-artery bypass patients who have surgery to relieve pain, rather than to cure them. In fact, the only real cure is for them to start taking better care of themselves, such as quitting smoking, eating less, and exercising. Yet, in study after study, very few do! When these patients are looked at two years after their surgery, 90% have not made any significant change to their lifestyle.

    Going back to the heart patients, a researcher showed that a holistic program focused around a vegetarian diet, can actually reverse heart disease without surgery or drugs. This holistic program includes going after their feelings by having them attend a twice-weekly support group sessions led by a psychologist. It includes instruction in aerobic exercise, meditation, relaxation, and yoga and lasts for about a year. A study showed that after three years, 77% of the patients had stuck with their lifestyle changes and avoided the surgery. A far cry from the 10% who succeed when only given cognitive instructions.

    This holistic method works better as the change is reframed -- rather than trying to motivate patients with the fear of death; they are motivated with the joy of living. Facing death for most people is much too frightening to think about, thus patients often go into denial; where as making daily life more enjoyable is a powerful motivator.

    Thus rather than drive people to change through fear, we should be guiding them to the joys of life. I wrote an article about performance management, Completing the Zen in Performance Management that includes the concepts of Learn, Reframe, Flow, and Viscosity that relates to your post.

  2. I have long had a little mantra that I use to coach people who are struggling with a communication problem: "The purpose of all communication is to change behavior." I get a lot of resistance from writers on this. No, they insist, we just want to inform people, not change their behavior.

    When I blogged about this recently (, I got the same push-back in the comments.

    The problem, I think, is that many writers and educators actually think it is wrong, or at least impolite, to try to change people's behavior. Some positively bristle at the suggestion that this is what they are supposed to do.

    The interesting question is, how much does this reluctance -- perhaps we could call it this respect for the reader's autonomy -- actually affect how people write and teach. Do they, consciously or unconsciously, draw back at the moment when they might actually push the reader to the point of change. Do they, deliberately or subconsciously, choose forms of writing or instruction that are less effective in changing behavior?

    I have to think that if you don't think it is your job to change people's behavior, you probably won't succeed in doing it.

  3. Donald - I love your example of holistic medicine versus actually reflects a very common problem in human cognition that we overvalue the immediate reward of a behavior and undervalue the long-term impacts of that behavior, causing us to make (logically) very flawed decisions. The trick is to, as you point out, add context and relevance to the behaviors you want (in your example, social reinforcement) that are more valuable in the short-term than smoking a cigarette or eating a cookie.

    Mark - I like the thought that the purpose of all communication is to change behavior, as simply informing removes the responsibility of action or consequence of having knowledge. In other words, what is the point of knowing something if you're not doing anything about it? I've become bored with great theorists or inspirational thinkers/speakers who haven't actually taken action; tired of armchair quarterbacks who espouse what people should be doing but who aren't actually doing those things themselves. Anybody can say anything, can't they? It's what you do that ultimately counts...and for learning professionals, the proof of our effectiveness is in performance and behavioral data, not what someone scored on a knowledge check or content assessment :)

  4. I often say that I'm not sure that I've EVER changed anyone's behavior. The best I can do is to show them where it would be in their own rational self-interest to do so.

    Yes, I can effect a short-term change -- using either a carrot or a stick. I can offer someone $100 to do what I want, or I can threaten to fire them if they don't. Either one will work as long as I have enough carrots or sticks. But eventually they become ineffective.

    As a developer of learning materials, I often find that clients want me to develop some kind of training to change behavior that will benefit the C-suite, but not the actual employees. (Keys to identifying these types of projects are words like "increasing productivity" and "doing more with less" and "raising the bar".)

    It usually involves putting the same amount of hamsters on the wheel, but making the wheel go around faster while supplying less food. The hamster will quickly identify what's going on, no matter how many motivational posters or inspirational videos you provide.