6 Barriers to Effective Learning for Frontline Employees, and How to Avoid Them

30 January 2020

Training & learning | Internal communications

Cultivating a team of knowledgeable, well-trained and highly engaged frontline employees is the key to success in your physical locations.

It’s no secret that the only way to do so is through an effective employee training program. How to actually go about that training, however, is a different matter entirely.

When it comes to learning on the job, there are a surprising amount of pitfalls. This applies to everyone on some level, but none more so than frontline employees.

They’re onboarded much faster than average due to high turnover, and have to retain information perfectly so that the customer experience doesn’t suffer. Without proper training and support, it can be pretty overwhelming.

Read on for 6 common barriers to effective learning - and how to avoid them.

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Learning Barrier Blog

#1 - Cognitive Overload

Cognitive load theory, first researched in 1988 by John Sweller, stipulates that our working memory can only process a limited amount of information at a time before we lose the capacity to process anything else.

Moving new knowledge and behaviors from working memory to long-term memory requires us to store chunks of information as “schemas”, which are groups of information with a specific theme or function.

So, employees who are presented with large amounts of new information are in danger of overloading their working memory. One study estimated that working memory can only hold 3-5 meaningful items at a time in young adults.

If new concepts aren’t grouped into schemas and transferred to long-term memory, employees won’t retain information.

#2 - Passive vs. Active Learning

When learners observe, read, or listen to information, they’re learning passively. Active learning involves decision-making, creating and analyzing information.

Active learning functions require more neural connections in the brain, which promotes increased retention of the information. The problem with passive learning is that learners are less likely to retain the information, because they don’t have to use complex thought processes. This makes the information less likely to stick and leaves the learners vulnerable to cognitive overload.

What’s more, passive learning has been and continues to be the default mode for learning. We can see this everywhere from university lecture halls to a frontline employee’s first onboarding session.

#3 - Insufficient spacing and repetition of information

Cramming information into one day may be less expensive for employers, but the long-term cost is employees not retaining the information.

Studies have shown that spacing out learning sessions results in better retention of information than cramming the same information into one session. Studies also show that repeated exposure to information leads to faster and more efficient retrieval of the information later on. Revisiting information at least 3 times is ideal.

That means that one-time training on important information isn’t likely to stick, because it’s just not how our brains learn.

#4 - Social vs. individual learning

Social learning theory, originated by psychologist Albert Bandura, puts forward the idea that people learn by watching and imitating the behavior of others.

Another learning theory, the 70-20-10 model, posits that learners get 70% of their knowledge through on-the-job experience, 20% from their peers and 10% from formal training.

Considering that the majority of training for frontline employees is centered on individual learning, the absence of social learning becomes a real problem. That’s because working on the frontline with customers is an inherently social job.

So by focusing on formal training centered on the individual, employers are only providing employees with 10% of the means to effectively learn the material.

#5 - Motivation to learn

Self-determination theory puts forth the idea that individuals are most motivated by experiencing autonomy, competence and connection. What does this mean for training?

It means learners have to know what’s in it for them - intrinsically, not extrinsically.

Extrinsic motivations to complete training, like financial gain or making sessions mandatory, just aren’t as effective as intrinsic motivators like seeing progress, personal development, and experiencing deeper connections with others.

#6 - Limited Attention Span

It’s estimated that adults have an attention span of no more than 8 seconds. Others think this is an oversimplification.

Either way, one thing’s for sure - people can only focus on one thing for so long, and frontline employees know what it’s like to have a constant barrage of distractions and competing priorities.

It’s debatable whether long training sessions are suitable for even the most desk-bound of office-goers, let alone an employee spending the whole day on their feet, jumping from task to task.


So, what have we learned today, class? Let’s recap. The ideal training program should:

  • Break training down into manageable, bitesize chunks
  • Actively engage the learner
  • Incorporate social learning
  • Provide learners with intrinsic motivation to succeed

Luckily, YOOBIC has got you covered. Check out our collaborative learning solution to find out how you can support and empower your frontline employees to give their all, every day.