Sometimes the Attempt to Directly Transfer Theory to Practice Can Be Damaging

From the web…ASTD 2005 Research-to-Practice Conference Proceedings…

How to Turn Research into Successful Practice: A Technology of Performance Design for Organizations, Teams and Individuals
Richard E. Clark
Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California
The purpose of this discussion is to describe a promising approach to answering the
following question: “What do we need to do to turn research into successful practice …and vice versa?”
The question is critical as our attempts to develop best-in-class strategies for workplace learning continue to evolve, performance and decision making. Answering the question now is important for at least two reasons:
  • First, it appears that too many of our most popular performance solutions are ineffective when their impact is examined carefully. Several blue-ribbon scientific groups including the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council have given failing grades to many of the most frequently used organizational and team learning and performance solutions. Equally distressing is the evidence that when we analyze the designs we use to evaluate the results of these solutions, the more positive results tend to be associated with the worst evaluation designs. As the rigor of evaluation increases, the positive results from performance interventions decrease and/or show unintended negative side effects (Clark and Estes, 2002). Thus, we may not only fail too often but we may also be hiding the fact from ourselves with inadequate evaluation.
  • The second reason the research to practice question is important comes from evidence
    that the transfer of research to practice is not at all straightforward. We have learned that
    a research-based theory about how something happens cannot be directly translated into an intervention that will produce a desired outcome.

In fact, sometimes the attempt to directly transfer theory to practice can be damaging. The best current example of this is the recent enthusiasm for the use of constructivist and discovery learning approaches for both management and skill training.

It is true that people often construct their knowledge by drawing on their prior knowledge and by trial and error learning.

However, that fact does not imply that the most effective and efficient way to train is to let people discover and construct what they need in “communities of practice.”

In fact, the evidence from the past 50 years of research on this issue is unequivocal – unguided or minimally guided discovery and constructivist learning programs simply do not work for more than a very small percentage of people.

In addition, these popular approaches are very inefficient (see for example, Mayer, 2005; and Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, In Press).

Most of our highly popular and successful research-based interventions may work only in very specific settings and only under special conditions. In different settings and conditions they are ineffective and, in some instances, they may significantly damage performance (examples are described in Clark & Estes, 2002).

There are many reasons why we have not yet succeeded in developing more effective
performance interventions and they have been described by a number of analysts (see
for example, Clark & Estes, 1998; 1999, 2000).

The goal of this discussion is to describe a method for turning research into effective and efficient organizational, team and individual performance improvement solutions that will generalize to many different types of organizations and work tasks.


If this is true, then “Informal Learning” approaches should be rare for critical target audiences, the learners/Performers in critical Enterprise processes.

For more on a proven approach to performance-based ISD, for performance-based Formal Learning, using any appropriate and available deployment means…see my book:


available as a free 404-page PDF at

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