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 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.
However, much of the research in support of EMT has been conducted on college-aged adults, which leads to questions about its appropriateness for older working adults. This is especially concerning in light of the aging U.S. workforce. Aspects of cognitive ability such as short term memory capacity, reasoning ability, and the speed at which we process information decline as we age (starting at about 30-35 years of age). Importantly, these aspects of ability play important roles in determining success in learner-led online training.
THE RESEARCH STUDY
In their study of working-aged adults, researchers (Carter & 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, results indicated that for older trainees, EMT is most beneficial for those high with cognitive ability. In contrast, EMT was most beneficial for young trainees low in cognitive ability.
THE BOTTOM LINE
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.