How (and When) to Use Discovery Learning in Employee Training

Discovery learning teaches employees creative problem-solving skills, but it's not ideal for every kind of training. Find out how and when to use discovery learning in your employee training program.

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If you're among the millions of die-hard Star Wars fans who tuned into The Mandalorian, or one who was converted to the cause by Baby Yoda, you may have heard the show's namesake spout his famous mantra, "This is the way."

One of the ironies of the series was that despite always knowing The Way, the Mandalorian was constantly getting his helmet handed to him on a plate. His plans went sideways every way they could. It was painful to watch.

There were many times in the past year when there was no way, when small businesses were very much making it up as they went along. How reassuring it would have been to have an interstellar warrior jump in with a cool set of armor and a surefire plan.

As an entrepreneur, there are many lessons you have to learn the hard way. There simply is no master plan that will work for every business and every circumstance. It's not always easy or fun, but it definitely teaches you things you could never learn any other way.

That's what discovery learning is all about. Here's an overview of what discovery learning has to offer and how to incorporate it into your corporate training programs.

Overview: What is discovery learning?

Discovery learning is an active inquiry learning approach that allows students to build knowledge by exploring ideas and testing them independently. In a discovery learning environment, the teacher acts as a facilitator and guide rather than a dispenser of knowledge.

The word "discover" implies an unknown destination, and that's key to the concept of discovery learning. It's not simply an active journey to the truth; it's an exploration of the unknown that reveals hidden truths along the way. Those truths may differ from learner to learner.

So what does that look like in an employee training program? Here's an example of both a traditional and a discovery approach to a customer service training opportunity.

The problem: Declining customer service ratings

Your customer service ratings have sharply declined. You want to turn those numbers around. You gather this information:

  • Research on customer desires and expectations
  • Stats on your customer service performance versus industry benchmarks
  • Examples of customer service requests that led to complaints

Based on your research, you brainstorm changes to your customer service procedures to improve your results. Now you just need to train your customer service reps to adopt the new processes.

A traditional learning approach

A traditional, vicarious learning approach would be to present your data, your diagnosis of the problems, and your solutions. You might include:

  • Interactive content, such as surveys, polls, and assessments
  • Active learning elements, such as practice problems to solve
  • Collaborative learning, such as small group breakouts for skills practice
  • A question-and-answer session to gather feedback on the changes

A discovery learning approach

Now imagine how different the training would be if you presented your reps with your industry research, internal stats, and examples of customer service issues. Then you asked them to work independently or in small groups to:

  • Analyze the data and examples you gathered
  • Identify root problems and opportunities for improvement
  • Recommend changes to company procedures to solve the problems

You could review all of the recommendations as a group and distill them into updated procedures. That's a discovery learning approach.

As you can imagine, each approach would yield very different learning experiences for your employees and very different outcomes for your company.

Let's take a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks of the discovery learning method to see what it has to offer and how to take advantage of it.

An account planning challenge with peer submissions in WorkRamp.

WorkRamp's learning management system (LMS) supports discovery learning through real-world challenges. Source: WorkRamp software.

6 benefits of discovery learning

Here are a few of the benefits of the discovery learning method.

1. Engagement

The discovery learning group in our example had to analyze raw data, draw on their unique experiences to troubleshoot the issues, and recommend solutions. These active learning experiences tend to be more engaging than sitting back and taking notes.

2. Autonomy

The discovery approach asked learners to solve the problem on their own rather than accept the company's ready-made answers. That enhances critical thinking skills and provides a sense of autonomy and control over the work.

3. Ownership

Employees are more likely to be enthused and supportive about a solution they helped develop, or they at least had an opportunity to weigh in on. Discovery learning activities give them that chance.

4. Innovation

If you come to a group of learners with the answers already in your pocket, you're not going to uncover new ones. Discovery learning broadens your solution set, paving the way for more innovative ideas.

5. Empowerment

Being invited to the troubleshooting and problem-solving table is empowering. It also encourages employees to step up and suggest solutions as part of their jobs rather than sitting back and taking whatever comes in stride.

6. Collaboration

The discovery method is well-suited for group work, which can enhance team dynamics and cohesion.

A lesson requiring a response to a customer service ticket.

This assignment in Lessonly LMS lets employees practice responding to a customer support request. Source: Lessonly software.

4 drawbacks of discovery learning

The discovery learning model also has its limits. Understanding them will help you apply discovery learning where it makes the most sense.

1. Inefficiency

Exploration is inherently inefficient. It takes longer to get where you're going, it's less clear when and where you've arrived, and it takes time to get everyone back on the same page once you figure all that out. In our customer service example, the discovery learners could come up with completely different conclusions about the data and problems, with no solutions in sight.

2. Lack of clarity

Discovery learning can be confusing to participants looking for clarity and direction. Some learners are quickly frustrated when given open-ended challenges. For them, traditional teaching techniques are more effective.

3. Subjectivity

Discovery learning invites everyone to weigh in and discover their own solutions. As empowering as that is, it isn't always appropriate. Subjects that require adherence to strict rules and specifications are not good candidates for discovery learning.

4. Lack of authority

Traditional instruction enhances the authority of your trainers and leadership. Depending on the subject matter, you may want to convey clear authority in your training program.

So when does it make sense to use discovery learning in employee training? Here are some use cases for discovery and traditional learning techniques.


Your audience is inexperienced Your audience has valuable insights and experiences to contribute
You want to teach a static body of knowledge or technical skill You want to develop critical thinking skills
The solutions are known and objective You want to uncover new approaches and ideas
Learning is asynchronous or independent Learning is collaborative
You want compliance You want buy-in
You want to convey authority You want to inspire confidence and ownership
Your learners want clarity and direction Your learners want to solve real-world problems
You want fast, decisive results You want stimulating learning experiences

How to use discovery learning in the workplace

Discovery learning is a powerful training technique. Here’s how to incorporate it into your company training programs.

1. Choose the right use case

If you know The Way and simply want to convey that information to make everyone's lives easier, a traditional approach is probably best. If you want to uncover new ways, you might want to incorporate discovery learning.

Discovery learning is ideal for tapping your employees' first-hand knowledge and experience, encouraging them to troubleshoot and problem-solve on the job, and developing innovative ideas and solutions.

2. Mix it up

Discovery learning isn't an all-or-nothing proposal. You can apply discovery learning and other inquiry-based learning techniques to an exercise or module within a traditional course. In fact, breaking courses into microlearning units and varying teaching techniques can help keep learners engaged in your material.

3. Solve real-world problems

Discovery learning is made for solving real-world problems. According to adult learning theory, adult learners especially enjoy applying their experiences and expertise to everyday challenges.

4. Come with questions

To make discovery learning work, you need to be open to novel ideas and approaches. Even if you have a pretty good idea of the answers, you don't want to share them until your students have had a chance to try to arrive at them on their own. Once they do that, you need to be open to adapting their solutions and embracing their discoveries.

5. Provide structure and context

Discovery learning doesn't mean simply providing a question and a whiteboard and ordering sandwiches. You want to give learners sufficient context and resources to solve the problem. Examples include industry data, case studies, internal metrics, a history of the problem, solutions that have been tried, and the outcomes of those attempts.

6. Guide and facilitate the exploration

Discovery learning works best when instructors guide and support the inquiry process. That could mean pointing learners to certain data, asking productive questions, suggesting a problem-solving technique, or using other interventions to keep them moving forward.

7. Use learning management software

A learning management system (LMS) is an invaluable tool for delivering dynamic learning experiences. Systems such as Lessonly and WorkRamp allow employees to practice skills like answering customer service requests and delivering sales pitches, which can contribute to discovery learning.

When The Way isn't clear

Entrepreneurship is the ultimate discovery learning experience. No sooner do you know The Way than everything goes awry, and you have to find a new one. Discovery learning embraces that ambiguity and draws on your learners' unique experiences and ideas to create new ways forward.

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