The Upside-Down Training Cake

By Marty Rosenheck

I’ll bet you want your organization’s investment in training to pay off in better performance, more quickly. Well, there is a way to reduce the time to proficiency—let them eat upside-down cake!

Please indulge me for a minute by thinking of training as an upside-down cake. This kind of cake has delicious fruit on the bottom of the cake pan and then the rest of the cake is layered on top of it. When an upside-down cake is served, it is turned (you guessed it) upside down—so the fruit is on the top. That’s how training should be served—beginning with the job task (the fruit) and then getting the supporting content (the rest of the cake) as needed to complete the task.

The typical training program doesn’t turn the cake upside down. Trainees have to get through the rest of the cake (content) before they get to the delicious fruit (the job task). But what if your designers and developers turned the traditional learning model upside down? Instead of presenting a bunch of information sequentially, they start with a realistic job task or problem and then build in the relevant content as it’s needed, just in time, at the teachable moment. By turning training on its head, your training investment can result in faster attainment of proficiency on the job – especially with relatively complex tasks like sales, customer service, system usage and technical skills.

Hungry to find out why this is so? Read on…

Motivation to Learn

When training begins with a case, scenario or simulation (after a very brief overview), trainees are more motivated to learn than when they are presented with a lot of content up front. As they work through cases, trainees are faced with decision points, moments where the learner thinks “Hmm, what should I do?”

At those points—the “teachable moments”—trainees are motivated to learn, because they need the information to complete the task at hand. This “upside-down cake” approach is motivating because most trainees are goal-directed learners. If you give them a meaningful problem to solve that is relevant to their work, they’re going to be much more motivated to get the information they need to solve it than if they are given that information first, before they really understand how they will use it. It is harder to pay attention and make sense of content that is not taught in context.

The learning-while-doing approach also is motivating because trainees experience firsthand how the content is related to their jobs. This is more motivating than just being told the standard WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”)— Believe me, you’ll find that this content I’m presenting will eventually be useful to you, later, when we do an application exercise. Really, I mean it. It’s in your interest to stay awake.”

Retention and Transfer

Even more importantly, serving your training feast upside-down improves retention and transfer to the job. Trainees retain the information they get at the teachable moment because they use it immediately in the scenario. (If you use it, you don’t lose it.)

Most importantly, they are able to transfer what they have learned to the job because by getting information at the teachable moment, trainees create a mental link between the information and how it is used on the job. This means the information will be “indexed” in trainees’ minds, so it is easier to retrieve when needed in real life. Just start trainees out with the fruit (scenario) on top and then they can take a forkful of the cake (content) as they go. This is true learning while doing.

Cognitive Roots

While it is tempting to think that this approach was developed by Emeril and his colleagues on the Food Channel, it is actually based on research by cognitive scientists over the past 30 years on how people develop expertise. People develop expertise through experience. They learn by working through real problems getting feedback on what they do, and reflecting on it. For any moderately to very complex job, whether it is sales, customer service, using computer systems, or technical decision-making, people learn best by doing—but “doing” in a specific way.

Start with the problem: First, give a brief overview (the operative word here is “brief”), then set up a series of case studies, simulations or OJT tasks. Begin with a simple case, then build to more and more complex cases as the learners gain competence and confidence. By the time they’re done working through a very systematic set of cases, they’ve already started having experiences in a simulated or training environment. When they’re actually on the job, they’ve already had the basic experiences that moved them well along the continuum toward expertise. The upside-down cake training gives them a jump start, reducing the time it takes to become proficient on the job.


But what about the costs? Aren’t upside-down cakes more expensive and time-consuming to make than regular cakes? Development of this type of training might be a little bit more time-consuming (working with SMEs to create meaningful cases). But, it doesn’t have to be expensive. To make upside-down cake training, you can simply take the training that you’re doing now, which usually involves presenting information and then having some sort of application exercise afterwards, and turn it upside down. Just set up the case/situation first and then use that as a context for presenting the content information at teachable moments.

When looking at the investment in training, some may assume that the cost of training is the cost of developing and implementing the training program. However, the real cost, at an organizational level, is related to how quickly learners develop proficient job performance after training-how fast they come up to speed in complex jobs. These costs are substantial, but are rarely measured. We all know they exist, and they can be quite large. These costs show up as:

  • Sub-par productivity.
  • Mistakes.
  • Dissatisfied customers.
  • Time spent getting help from others.
  • Manager’s time reviewing and correcting work.
  • Attrition of people who feel overwhelmed by their jobs.

The return on investment in terms of reduction in the time to proficiency can be huge, making the training investment worthwhile. For example, in one large organization, it took one and a half to three years for their entry-level
employees to become proficient. They are now implementing a case-based curriculum that has reduced time to proficiency in the pilot test. By getting people up to speed more quickly, there can be a huge savings in terms of productivity.

With that kind of savings, you can have your upside-down cake—and eat it too.

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 edition of Chief Learning Officer.