Learning as Punishment—Sound Engaging?

By Staff Report

Jan. 18, 2012

I got in trouble a few times in eighth grade. I didn’t break any big rules and never, as far as I know, had anything documented on my permanent record. There’s one punishment I haven’t forgotten. I had to write a paper over a fall weekend and turn it in on time. I met the deadline, but had to miss a Pittsburgh Steelers game. That hurt. But that’s all I remember—not what I did wrong or what I learned.

When it comes to training on workplace compliance and ethical issues, too much of our learning is like this, presented as infrequent punishment rather than an ongoing experience intended to benefit adult learners.

The result is the same as my work on that eighth-grade paper. What mostly lingers is frustration and annoyance. That’s not the way to deliver lasting lessons.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a colleague required to complete a battery of online compliance courses by year’s end to get his bonus. He raced through, click after click, sacrificing a weekend to finish on time. He candidly told me he learned nothing, but he did meet his deadline.

Earlier last week, I learned that a program designed to teach important information and skills had been used primarily to remediate offenders. Those who had done wrong were required to complete the course as a form of corrective action. Not surprisingly, the evaluations were not at the same positive levels as other comparable deliveries. The participants resented the training. Their scores reflected it.

Just this weekend, I had dinner with my friend. His firm builds tanks. I’ve written about him previously. The first words he said after hello: “Well, I completed the mandatory sexual harassment training again—it was the same stuff I had last year—the exact same course. I’m done for the year now.”

I asked him what he had learned and he didn’t say anything. He just shook his head and smirked.

In each of the following cases, the learners received negative educational messages. These are not the way to make learning last.

• “Even though you’ve earned it, there’s no bonus for you this year unless you complete your compliance training on time.”

• “You have to do this because you’ve been bad; here’s your discipline—a training course.”

• “Get this out of the way now, prove you did, you’ll have to do it sometime, you may as well do it now.”

Many years ago, at Sunnyside Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Jean Brooke taught grammar to our sixth-grade class. The course consisted of a series of pen-and-paper “programmed” lessons called “English 2600.” The exercises—2,600 of them—were short, engaging minimodules.

You had to pay attention to figure out some of the subtler twists and turns of English sentence structure. There were milestones, quizzes and rewards. We never knew what we’d learn next.

After finishing our self-paced segments, Ms. Brooke showed us how what we learned applied in our work. She did that the whole term, answering our questions along the way while reinforcing key learning points. What she taught has stuck with me many years since 1961.

As we continue to deploy workplace learning, our goal should be to incorporate the elements that made our best learning experiences special, relevant and memorable using all of the mediums and tools now available to us.

For example, with clever, thoughtful programs tied to real job issues, we can use online learning to engage participants with rewards, incentives and unexpected challenges followed by quick feedback and surprises. Then, we can reinforce the content through ongoing messages delivered by technology as well as live leaders and mentors.

That’s how learning will stay alive and last as an ongoing experience, not just a solitary, mandatory and forgettable event. Being able to deliver learning like this on a broader scale than ever before is the great promise that blending new online technologies with live leader support and reinforcement offers.

My lasting thanks to Ms. Brooke for making my learning about grammar—hardly an exciting subject for this former sixth grader—matter and stick, not as a punishment whose lessons I would have forgotten long ago.

Stephen Paskoff is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of ethics and compliance learning solutions. He can be contacted at

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