Five of the best workplace learning theories

If you’ve ever been to an L&D conference, you’ll know that workplace learning theories have a bad reputation.

Written by Ross Garner
Published 24 March 2021
Five of the best workplace learning theories

There is no evidence that learning styles have any effect on learning [1]; you are not left- or right-brained [2]; and the claim that our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish is offensive to both people, and goldfish.[3] 

So, what workplace learning theories are useful? At Emerald Works, our team of Learning Experience Designers have over 30 years’ combined experience putting the following into practice. And we thought we’d share our top five practical learning theories here. 

1. Nudge theory, Thaler and Sunstein, 2008 

Not strictly speaking a “learning” theory, but a useful place to start. Nudge theory was popularized in 2008 by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein [4], building on work by the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. [5] Most famously, a ‘nudge’ is a small intervention that has a major effect. Changing the wording on a tax letter, for example, can improve return rates, or asking people to opt-out of a pension plan rather than opt-in can improve enrolment. [6] 

How do you determine an appropriate nudge? By assessing how people are making decisions, then adjusting the ‘choice architecture’ of those decisions to encourage a more desirable outcome. 

For example, you might be asked to develop training on your organization’s anti-bribery policy because no one is populating the gift register. When you investigate further, it turns out that the gift register is difficult to find, so people give up. It’s not a training problem: it’s a choice problem. People know what to do but choose to give up when they encounter difficulty. 

By making the gift register easier to access, you’ve used nudge theory to solve the problem, without ever having to get into ‘learning’. 

2. Action mapping, Moore, 2008  

Action mapping is a technique developed by instructional designer Cathy Moore to avoid the most common of workplace learning outcomes: content dumping. [7] 

Instead of developing hours of training that covers everything a person could ever possibly need to know – but won’t remember – action mapping asks for a measurable organizational outcome. If we stick with the example above, that might be a 20% increase in items added to the gift register. Another example might involve increased sales, or reduced complaints. 

Once a goal is defined, we can ask what people need to do to achieve that goal. And, why aren’t they doing it already? (We can bring in choice architecture here to help!) 

If the answer is a lack of knowledge, skills or motivation, then we can design some kind of learning experience or resource to help our colleagues develop in these areas. Often, this is where content sneaks back in, so we need to be careful. Whatever we design should be tied specifically to our defined outcome. Our colleagues don’t need to know the history of anti-bribery legislation to be able to spot a bribe. 

3. Affective Context Model, Shackleton-Jones, 2010 

So, what to design? Here we turn to Nick Shackleton-Jones’ Affective Context Model. [8] In essence, people learn when it really matters to them. If it doesn’t matter to them, it’s very difficult for them to learn anything at all. 

Our colleagues are always trying to solve problems that matter to them. It’s what we call ‘work’. Our focus should be on helping them do so, and often a resource is the answer. This could be top tips for having a difficult conversation, or a flow chart they can follow when handling a complaint. Neither of these examples is traditional ‘training.’ 

Then there are those issues that don’t seem to matter much day-to-day. Data protection, for example. On the surface, it feels abstract and remote. As learning designers, our job is to make it matter. 

The extreme approach here would be to have your Head of IT send an email to each colleague, telling them they’ve just caused a data breach and to identify how it happened. Those colleagues will never forget that email.  

A less extreme version of this might be to share stories of people whose lives have been affected by data breaches. If we can trigger an emotional response, there’s a far better chance of a learning experience having an impact. 

The affective context model receives some criticism for a lack of experimental evidence, but we’ve found it a useful approach for making workplace learning matter. 

4. Zone of proximal development, Vygotsky, 1930s 

A classic learning theory, for the purists. Vygotsky describes the zone of proximal development, or ZIPD, as the difference between what a child can do on their own and what they can do with the support of an adult or more capable peers. [9] 

Yes, Vyogtsky was working in an educational context with children, but the theory is a useful lens through which to design any number of formal learning experiences – and is frequently applied to adult learning. 

For example, having a group of colleagues work on a shared problem gives each individual access to support that can help them perform beyond what they could do on their own. Coaching and mentoring offer similar opportunities. 

Taking time to understand the skill level your learners currently have, and how comfortable and ready they are to learn more, will help you to offer the right support at the right time. 

5. Scaffolding theory, Bruner, 1950s 

Building on Vygotsky’s work, Jerome Bruner coined scaffolding theory to describe the process whereby learners are given support from an instructor: support which is gradually removed as the learner’s skill increases. [10] 

The key here is that the scaffolding should provide sufficient support that the learner feels challenged, but not beyond their current capability (their ZPD). 

This is a particular challenge for e-learning development, where you might have thousands of learners taking an online course.  

But e-learning also offers plenty of tools for adapting to individual ability. Some simple techniques are tooltips (so learners unfamiliar with terms can hover over them for a definition), hints (for when learners get stuck), and well-written feedback (to highlight why a particular answer or solution is wrong).  

More complicated scaffolding is possible with adaptive learning experiences, which show or hide content based on actions the learner takes. 


Taken together, these five theories  describe the approach taken by the Emerald Works Custom Team to develop courses, videos, animations, infographics and other resources, to solve real-world organizational challenges. 

Nudge theory and action mapping help us define and diagnose issues. The Affective Context Model helps us think about what matters to learners, and how to make issues matter. Then the zone of proximal development and scaffolding theories of Vygotsky and Bruner help us shape experiences and resources that offer support to those who need it, while focusing on skill development. 


[1] MYTHS AND WORSE, ‘New Scientific Review of Learning Styles’. Available here. (Accessed March 2021.) 

[2] Robert H. Shmerling, MD, ‘Right brain/left brain, right?’ (2019). Available here. (Accessed March 2021). 

[3] Emerald Works, ‘Podcast 158 - Attention spans: With apologies to goldfish’ (2019). Available here. (Accessed March 2021.) 

[4] Leonard, T. C. (2008). Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. 

[5] Daniel, K. (2017). Thinking, fast and slow. 

[6] ‘Nudge 2.0’ (2019). Available here. (Accessed March 2021.) 

[7] ‘Action mapping: A visual approach to training design’ Available here. (Accessed March 2021.) 

[8] ‘Towards a Working Theory of Learning: The Affective Context Model’. Available here. (Accessed March 2021.) 

[9] ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (2017). Available here. (Accessed March 2021.) 

[10] Anna Shcvarts and Arthur Bakker, ‘The early history of the scaffolding metaphor: Bernstein, Luria, Vygotsky, and before’ (2019). Available here. (Accessed March 2021.) 

About the author

Ross Garner

Ross Garner

Head of Learning Experience
Ross has been working in L&D for nine years and heads up the learning experience team at Mind Tools for Business. In 2019 he completed a Masters in Digital Education and was named Learning Technologies’ Learning Designer of the Year. He is also one of the hosts of the Mind Tools L&D Podcast.

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