By Barbara Bucklin, PhD
bSci21 Contributing Writer
While speaking with a good friend, with whom I’ve worked in many capacities over the years, I mentioned an upcoming fluency-based learning solution I’m designing for a corporate client. She said, “I didn’t realize anyone was still doing that.” I told her that behavioral fluency isn’t dead and some of us are still using it in organizational learning solutions; however, it doesn’t have the wide-spread attention that it could or should have. If you ask most corporate learning professionals about their experience with behavioral fluency, you’ll get a blank stare. They’ve never heard of it. Over a decade ago, Carl Binder posed the question, “Doesn’t everybody need fluency?” (2003). The answer is still yes! Over 40 years of fluency research and practical application demonstrate its benefits over traditional training methods. Corporations spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on training and development programs in the United States alone, with the expectation that those programs will lead to employee and organizational performance improvement (Training Magazine, 2014; Bersin, 2014; Salas & Cannon-Bowers, 2001). It seems obvious that we should spend the dollars wisely and focus our attention on evidence-based training methods proven to change behavior and produce results. It was clear when Binder posed the question, and it still is today, “that everybody needs fluency, no matter what their personal or professional endeavor, because fluency is the true definition of mastery or competence.” (p 19)
What is Fluency?
Fluency is the combination of accuracy and speed in responding, which differs from most traditional training that measures accuracy alone. Fluency researchers, trainers, and precision teachers focus on response rate in addition to percent correct (Binder, 1996; Lindsley, 1990). The ability to perform quickly, accurately, and without hesitation is a distinguishing characteristic of fluent performance, which has been described as “automatic,” “second nature,” and “effortless.” Fluency represents a standard of true mastery (Binder & Bloom, 1989) and is a way to distinguish between novice and expert performance.
When I explain fluency to my corporate training clients, I point out the difference between fast, accurate responses and slow, accurate responses using a simple example. If a customer asks a question on a showroom floor and one sales employee immediately provides an accurate answer and another employee pauses, fumbles, and hesitates before she provides an accurate answer, which employee is the customer likely to do business with? Fluent performance builds trust and credibility with customers. Traditional training methods, which measure accuracy-only with minimal practice, will send that hesitant sales employee out on the showroom floor before she’s able to demonstrate true mastery.
What are the Benefits?
Employees trained with fluency methods retain the knowledge or skill for longer periods of time without exposure to the material than those trained with more traditional methods. For example, in a recent research study to assess whether a fluency-based training program would improve the speed and accuracy of automotive product knowledge as compared with more traditional accuracy-based training programs, participants who were trained using the fluency method retained product information for longer periods of time than those trained with the traditional methods (Fante, et al., 2016). In a different laboratory study, participants learned associations between Hebrew symbols and non-sense syllables and Arabic numerals and non-sense syllables. Those trained to fluency performed significantly better immediately following training and up to 16 weeks after training (Bucklin, Brethower, & Dickinson, 2000).
When people are trained with fluency methods on a basic (component) skill, they can more easily apply it to a more complex, related (composite) skill. For example, when bankers were trained to fluency on various customer needs, they were able to more quickly and accurately answer customer questions and respond to their needs than experienced employees in the same job role (Binder & Bloom, 1989). In the laboratory study I mentioned previously, participants were also tested on a ‘composite’ task that required both associations – to add Hebrew symbols, a task they weren’t explicitly trained on. When they were tested on this composite task immediately following training and in intervals following training, the fluency group was still performing at over 60% correct after 16 weeks, whereas the accuracy-only group had ‘bottomed out’ at less than 20% correct after only four weeks (Bucklin, et al, 2000).
Endurance is the ability to perform a skill for longer periods of time without fatigue and despite distractions. This has been shown with children in classroom settings, but as far as I know hasn’t been demonstrated experimentally with an adult population. This would be an excellent area to study, given the loud and chaotic environments where many employees work.
More Evidence Fluency Works
For more evidence illustrating these fluency benefits, go to www.fluency.org. You’ll find published and unpublished articles, presentations, audio, video, and links that demonstrate fluency learning success in corporate settings with sales professionals, customer service professionals, call center employees, and new hires, as well as examples with students of all ages across numerous settings.
Fluency Job Aid
Several years ago, Lori Ludwig and I combined what we learned in our research, Carl Binder’s work, plus our own experience and data to develop the job aid below for training professionals to develop behavioral fluency learning activities.
We’d love to hear your feedback to help us improve our job aid! And please spread the word about the benefits of behavioral fluency.
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Bersin, J. (2014, February 4). Spending on corporate training soars: Employee capabilities now a priority. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2014/02/04/the-recovery-arrives-corporate-training-spend-skyrockets/
Binder, C. (1996). Behavioral fluency: Evolution of a new paradigm. The Behavior Analyst, 19, 163 – 197.
Binder, C. (2003, April). Doesn’t Everybody Need Fluency? Performance Improvement, 42(3), 14-20.
Binder, C., & Bloom, C. (1989, February). Fluent product knowledge: Application in the financial services industry. Performance and Instruction, 28, 17 – 21.
Bucklin, B.R., Dickinson, A.M., and Brethower, D. M. (2000). A comparison of the effects of fluency training and accuracy training on application and retention. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 13(3), 140-163.
Fante, R.M., Bucklin, B.R., Ludwig-Diener, L., Sundberg, D.B., & Dickinson, A.M. (2016). A Comparison of training methods on the acquisition of automotive product knowledge. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 29 (3), 287 – 305.
Lindsley, O.R. (1990). Precision teaching: Discoveries and effects. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 51 – 57.
Salas, E., & Cannon-Bowers, J.A. (2001). The science of training: A decade of progress. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 471 – 499.
Training Magazine. (2014, November-December). 2014 training industry report. Training 51 (6), 16 – 29.