Training programs throughout the petrochemical industry rely heavily on the notion of similarity when designing training programs. A high degree of similarity, sometimes referred to as high fidelity, is thought to enhance the transfer of skill and knowledge from the training rooms to the actual real world environment. Recent research, "An Informational Perspective on Skill Transfer in Human-Machine Systems", Human Factors, 1991, 33(3), indicates that skill transfer by means of similarity, or high fidelity, is not the essence for transfer. Instead, a theory is proposed that states that awareness of perceptual invariants is enhanced during training and it is this awareness that forms the basis for transfer of skills and knowledge from one task to another.
Perceptual invariants are critical relationships within the operator's task domain that remain unchanged (invariant) while he is performing correctly, but will vary when he is not. The research implies that by focusing training efforts towards reinforcing the operator's ability to discriminate between critical features, patterns, and dimensions, learning and skill transfer will be enhanced, regardless of the degree of similarity or high fidelity.
The implications behind such research are enormous. The high fidelity approach to training cannot account for operator performance that was better, instead of worse, during experiments where planned departures from similarity between the training task and the actual task were applied. The theory of perceptual invariants, however, provides an explanation as to why it occurs based upon the role of low-dimensional information patterns for control of behavior within a high-dimensional environment. That is, if an operator's awareness to changes in low-dimensional critical patterns can be taught, then skill transfer can be better than if he were trained on the actual task.
In light of this research, processing plant training system designers need to be cautious in purchasing very expensive, high fidelity simulators with expectations that the transfer of skill will be enhanced. Lower fidelity simulators may actually be better in terms of providing the trainee with an experience that will better prepare him for his role in the real world environment.
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