There is often a large gap between academic research and the practices being applied in the workplace. There are many reasons for this. Some are real challenges, such as the lack of immediate applicability of much academic research. But often there is just poor communication between the two communities that hinders people from making use of great insights coming out of the ivory tower.

Research from the meeting

One of my favorite sources of this practical research is the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s Annual Meeting. The most recent meeting was held in September 2010. An entire track is devoted to training, and other tracks peripherally address training. In any given year, at least a few dozen papers are presented on training. This conference is unique because the attendees are split between academics and practitioners. There is a considerable amount of productive friction - just enough disagreement that we get into it, but not so much that we lose focus on what matters - generating good insights that we can apply on the shop floor. I am sharing a few of the useful things I learned. For more, search the conference proceedings at the HFES website ( You should try to make it to the conference. The most beneficial time is spent outside the technical sessions, interacting with the presenters and other training experts over a cup of coffee.

Simulation depth and length

A paper by some folks at the Air Force Research Lab is a good example.1 They use enough technical terms that many practitioners would be unlikely to read the paper. But the conclusions are important for anyone who is using high-fidelity simulations in their training. They found that there seems to be an optimum level of mental workload that maximizes how well trainees develop intuitive recognition of target situations (that is, true expertise). When the simulations were complicated, they had to be shorter to get the maximum post-training performance. When they were simple, longer simulations increased transfer. This may be intuitively obvious, but researchers have some real numbers so you can figure out just how long your simulations should be for any given level of complexity.

Train adaptive expertise

Another paper from researchers at the University of Central Florida looked at how we can train adaptive expertise.2 This is when trainees can take what they learn in one situation and apply it to another, even when the environment is highly complex and uncertain. Being able to adapt in these situations is the only way training is useful in today’s modern workplace because it is unlikely to be very similar to the limited number of trained situations we can simulate during training.

Researchers recommend six components to convert your people into adaptive experts. For each of these, the authors present some specific implementation strategies.

  • Cue Recognition Training: This involves explaining which factors are the most diagnostic in each different kind of situation and which ones can be delayed until later.
  • Sensemaking Training: This involves helping trainees develop mental models of different kinds of situations and giving immediate and rich feedback to help trainees immediately fix mental model errors when they are made.
  • Planning and Forecasting: This involves training workers to develop contingency plans before implementing solutions so that if things don’t go as planned, workers don’t panic and are prepared for what to do next.
  • Metacognitive Skills Training: This involves training workers how to keep track of their own mental processes to monitor when they are being overwhelmed by the situation or when they may be subject to bias and error. Then workers can be instructed in what to do when these occur.
  • Error-Based Training: No matter how good our training is, people will make mistakes in complex uncertain situations. This training component involves allowing trainees to make mistakes and practice how to recognize and cope with them.
  • Guided Self- or Team-Correction: This is a debriefing strategy in which individuals or teams evaluate their performance over time to see where improvements are needed. Training involves showing trainees why this is important, how to integrate it into their ongoing work practices and how to do it most effectively.

Making the handoff

Medical schools can also be a good source of training research. A paper from Vanderbilt University Medical Center looked at patient handovers from one department to another.3 In many industries, similar handovers happen whenever a valuable product is transferred from one department (such as receiving) to another (such as assembly).

Researchers conducted more than 1,000 observations to develop their conclusions. They found that the training program they describe in the paper (which you will have to read to get a full appreciation for) had a strong effect on improving handovers. They also found that untrained personnel in departments where others had been trained showed some learning. Apparently, untrained workers learned by observing the trained personnel, and the culture of the department had changed so that the training procedures became standard operating procedures for everyone. This can be a powerful way to leverage your training resources and get much more bang for your training buck.

Keep learning

A recent paper in the Journal of Safety Research describes a way to integrate a needs assessment into training curricula for fall prevention training for carpenters.4 Other academic papers come out every day. Going to conferences, though, gives you the opportunity for professional networking that you can’t get from reading papers in the comfort of your office. The HFES conference is one I recommend.


1 Boydstun A.S. et al (2010) On the development of training principles for intuitive decision making. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 54th Annual Meeting. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society: Santa Monica, CA.
2 Lazzara E.H. et al (2010) Guidelines for training adaptive expertise. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 54th Annual Meeting. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society: Santa Monica, CA.
3 Weinger M.B. et al (2010) Improving actual handover behavior with a simulator-based training intervention. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 54th Annual Meeting. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society: Santa Monica, CA.
4 Kaskutas V, Dale AM, Lipscomb H, Gaal J, Fuchs M, Evanoff B. Changes in fall prevention training for apprentice carpenters based on a comprehensive needs assessment. Journal of Safety Research. 2010;41(3):221-227.