Error Management Training: What’s Age Got to Do with It?

Topic: Training
Publication: Personnel Psychology (AUTUMN 2010)
Article: The effectiveness of error management training with working-aged adults
Authors: M. Carter and M.E. Beier
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

Two recent trends that have important implications for training and workforce development include: (1) the aging workforce and (2) the increase in learner-led, online training.  One intervention that has shown great potential is Error Management Training (EMT).  EMT is a fairly simple intervention that allows trainees to explore the learning environment and frames errors/mistakes as “good for learning” (during training at least).  In other words, in EMT, errors are not considered things that should be avoided, but rather opportunities to learn. 

When the use of EMT is considered in light of the fact that the workforce is aging – and the fact that much of the research in support of EMT has been conducted on college-aged adults – questions arise about its appropriateness for older working adults.  Aspects of cognitive ability such as short term memory (working memory) capacity, reasoning ability, and speed at which we process information decline as we age (starting at about 30-35 years of age – how very depressing…).  Importantly, these aspects of ability play important roles in determining one’s success in learner-led online training. 

In their study of working-aged adults, Carter and Beier (2010) found that EMT interventions (e.g., explicitly informing trainees that making errors is “good for their learning”) is generally beneficial for learners when training is learner-led.

Interestingly, their results also suggest that EMT is effective when training is highly structured (e.g., trainees are provided with step-by-step instructions for how to perform the skills being trained).  This finding is interesting because in highly structured training, learners are not usually given much freedom to explore the training content and actually make “errors”.  Yet, framing errors as facilitative of learning in structured training conditions may also be beneficial.

Though the results were generally positive for the EMT intervention, its influence on learning in highly structured training environments does depend on age.  For instance, Carter and Beier found that for older trainees, EMT is most beneficial for those high in cognitive ability.  In contrast, EMT was most beneficial for young trainees low in cognitive ability.

Overall, this study provides further evidence in support of EMT, which again, avoids framing errors as “bad” or “undesirable”.  This simple intervention can be especially powerful for younger trainees who are low in cognitive ability.  However, this study also points to the stark reality that there are important differences between younger and older employees that can impact employee learning in online training. 

Carter, M., & Beier, M.E. (2010). The effectiveness of error management training with working-aged adults. Personnel Psychology, 63, 641-675.