How Challenging Should Your Employee Training Program Be?

The short answer to that question is… hard enough that it’s challenging, but not so hard that it’s overwhelming.

Yea I know.

Simple to say, less simple to do.

We’ve noticed that clients often struggle to set the right level of difficulty for their programs. Which makes sense — it’s not always clear how challenging content should be.

The problem is we all tend to err on the side of “too easy” instead of “too hard.”

And when content is too easy, it doesn’t support your learning objectives. Training feels like a waste of time. Employees check out. And your analytics don’t accurately reflect their learning.

Why Challenging Content is The Key to Effective Employee Training Programs

One concern people have is they don’t want to overwhelm or alienate their employees with challenging content.

But the truth is, easy content can actually be worse for engagement rates. When training is too easy you don’t actually accomplish anything other than ticking the “ran a training program” box.

Challenging content benefits your employees (and you) in three distinct ways.

1. Improves Engagement

A recent study by Juho Hamari, Professor of Gamification at the Tampere University of Technology in Finland, examined the effect of challenge on engagement and learning within game-based learning. He found that “engagement in the game had a positive effect on learning.” Meaning, if you can engage employees in training, they’re likely to learn more.

It makes sense. If you aren’t paying attention, you probably aren’t going to learn much.

What’s interesting though, is Hamari found students that are challenged tend to be more engaged.

“Because the flow experience is so enjoyable, players are intrinsically motivated to improve their skills in order to meet the raised challenge and re-enter flow.” - Juho Hamari

That means that if employees are challenged, but have the opportunity to figure it out, they’ll feel good about themselves and thus keep playing. You just need to give them time to practice learning a new skill or topic before moving on.


2. Makes Employees Learn Better

In addition to improving learning via engagement, Hamari found challenge can also be a strong predictor of learning outcomes.

“Challenge might increase learning because the student has to apply a wider range of strategies in order to solve the puzzle in the game.”

When you’re challenged you have to think things through, approach situations in different ways, and use various skills in order to solve the problem. All of which improves your understanding of that problem.

That means if course content is too easy, your employees won’t learn as much; firstly because they may already know the content. But more importantly, because they aren’t challenged to apply that knowledge in different ways.

“When learning a new skill, the challenge of even a basic task may exceed a student’s beginning level of ability and hence one may feel overwhelmed. To reach flow, the level of ability must increase to match the challenge. Sufficient practice may be needed until the skill is mastered. Once mastered, a higher level of challenge is needed for one’s skill level to increase yet again. Thus, individuals may progress through increasingly difficult challenges at ever-higher levels of skills.” — Juho Hamari

In other words, if you want employees to build upon basic knowledge, you need to increase the challenge and give them time to practice mastering the new skill. Otherwise they’ll feel overwhelmed and won’t be motivated to learn.


3. Ensures Results Accurately Reflect Employee Learning

Challenging content not only improves employee learning, but it also ensures that your tracking and analytics accurately measure that learning.

When course content is too easy you get inflated results. Employees don’t really learn anything, but your tracking will show that they all did exceedingly well -- giving the impression that your course was effective.

Difficult questions can at times skew results by insinuating that employees didn’t learn when they perhaps did. But the results will indicate that you need to reassess your training course. The risk of easy content is that training never improves because the results continually appear to be amazing.


The Bottom Line

For training to be effective it can’t be too easy. Employees will tune out, and you’ll waste their time (and yours) teaching things they already know.

If you want employees to learn, you have to challenge them — then give them time to meet that challenge before increasing the difficulty.

This will improve engagement, deepen learning, and make sure your results actually reflect what’s happening in your training course.