Want to Succeed at Upskilling? Lead With Hands-On Learning

Corporate learning and development (L&D) is at a crossroads. Today’s workforce desperately needs a skills update to prepare for the future of work, and old-school strategies aren’t rising to the challenge. Instead, organizations are rapidly turning to hands-on learning. Here’s why…

Skills development was once reserved only for high-potential employees. But now, with qualified talent in short supply, business leaders realize the importance of reskilling and upskilling people at all levels of the organization. And this need is only growing more urgent, as innovative technologies disrupt and redefine jobs in every industry. Still, L&D is struggling to respond.

Hands-On Learning Avoids Wasted Dollars

The scale of this learning disconnect is massive. Global L&D spending now exceeds $360 billion a year — $165 billion in the U.S., alone. Yet 75% of managers are dissatisfied with their company’s L&D programs, and 70% of employees say they haven’t mastered the skills needed to do their jobs.

In other words, most employees aren’t translating learning into skills improvement or applying what they learn in real work settings. As a result, L&D budgets are largely being left behind on the classroom floor.

However, all learning experiences are not equal. Traditional instructional formats (such as classroom-based training, theoretical learning, and standard elearning courses) are not enough to help people build the skills they need to succeed. Clearly, to develop a more competent, productive workforce, employers must rethink the way they approach reskilling and upskilling. This is why hands-on learning is rapidly gaining traction.

5 Ways Hands-On Learning Improves Upskilling Results

1. It Drives Skill Mastery

Until recently, learning focused primarily on delivering content and consolidating that content into better (curated) experiences. This may improve information discovery and access, but it isn’t enough to support the complex roles many employees must perform.

Anyone can read a blog about how to fly a plane, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be ready to step into a pilot’s role. Likewise, anyone can sit in a cockpit observing others, but that first-hand exposure doesn’t fully prepare them to fly.

To become proficient at flying an airplane, people need hands-on learning experience. For example, participating in simulations, role play, and challenges over time helps people practice and develop competence. Also by incorporating assessments, individuals receive feedback that helps them evaluate and improve their ability to perform on the job.

According to Stanford neuroscience professor Andrew Huberman, there is no “best way” to learn. However, he says research indicates that note-taking helps people engage and retain conceptual information. He recommends actively reading or listening to the material, then spending time away to deliberately revisit the content. “Periodically think back from start to finish and figure out where gaps in knowledge remain. Then repeat.”

But he adds this important point, “For material that requires problem sets, obviously, you also need to do the problem sets.” After all, no one would trust a plumber who has never touched a pipe, or a builder who has no tools.

The value of hands-on learning is common sense. We know it from our earliest days as children who must learn to walk, talk, and eat. Learning by doing is the most effective way to develop a skill.

2. It Validates Skills With Confidence

Just as a pilot must complete 1500 hours of flight time to earn a license, many employees must validate hands-on mastery of critical skills. For example, think of people involved with coding, cybersecurity, crisis management, customer service, and more.

For roles like these, too much is at stake to rely solely on passive learning through articles, blogs, videos, podcasts, and books. It’s all too easy for someone to log in to an elearning course, online seminar, or virtual classroom and then check out mentally. Hours completed and content consumed are not enough to verify an individual’s level of understanding, skill, and competency.

What’s more, as technology and business processes change, employees face increasing pressure to upskill and reskill. As the pressure mounts, it’s tempting to simply click on content and tick boxes to complete a learning pathway.

It may be tempting to think theoretical knowledge is sufficient for people to perform successfully at work. But imagine your organization manages a billion-dollar financial portfolio. Would you trust an employee with untested book knowledge to protect your company from cyberattacks? If that were the case, then why does human error cause 90% of data breaches?

3. It Helps People Remember What They Learn

Hands-on learning isn’t just a way to give people a safe space to practice new skills. When employees engage in the simple act of completing a learning task in their job environment it reinforces knowledge. This is why medical education is based on the philosophy, “See one, do one, teach one.” Doctors and surgeons realized way back in the 19th century that hands-on practice is the best way to develop skills.

4. It Encourages People to Learn More, Faster

Hands-on learning also helps people learn more than they realize. That could be because experiential learning is more engaging than reading words on a page or watching an instructor’s video lecture. It could also be because people are asked to recall information and apply it in real time during a simulation or other challenge. For example, a Harvard study found that students in classes where skills were actively practiced learned more than those who attended lecture-based classes. As a result, test scores were higher among those in “active” classes.

Reinforcing new skills ensures that nobody forgets what they’ve learned as soon as they leave a classroom or switch off their computer. It connects skills with their application. As a result, it reinforces skill development. And ultimately, it helps people learn more, more quickly. This is especially critical for employees, who often have only limited time available for learning and development.

As EY says, “Today, although the skills gap is one of the main concerns of business leaders, the workforce only has limited time available to dedicate to learning. This means L&D needs to make learning more accessible and prioritize certain learning interventions over others. Briefly, L&D needs to think about how learning can be integrated into the flow of work, so the workforce and business can grow as much as possible, given shorter, faster, more integrated learning.”

Hands-on practice actually helps the mind consolidate learning and store it in long-term memory. Studies show that hands-on learning engages both hemispheres of the brain, so it stores more information and builds stronger connections with that information. In other words, people who engage in hands-on learning gain more knowledge, and they recall it faster when needed.

5. It Meets Diverse Learning Needs

Each of us prefers to learn in different ways. Some people enjoy traditional classroom education, while others find self-directed learning more effective. The same applies to corporate learning. We can’t expect everyone to feel comfortable upskilling through an online course or by reading written materials. For example, neurodiverse people may not have the attention span to sit through a lengthy webinar or read a manual. Hands-on learning levels the playing field by letting each employee participate in a way that feels more natural and appropriate for their needs.

Hands-On Learning Is the Smartest Upskilling Strategy

Many L&D leaders enter this field because they have a passion for learning and they understand the value it brings to employees and organizations alike. But if we don’t equip employees with the best options for learning, we’re letting them down. The best way for people to practice and develop skills in a safe environment is to offer hands-on learning experiences that align with their current roles and future aspirations.

If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself this question: The next time you travel on an airline, who would you choose to fly that plane? Would you prefer a pilot with thousands of hours of hands-on experience, or someone who’s spent thousands of hours reading airline manuals?