Wait – what did she say? Oh yeah….now I remember….

Ever find yourself forgetting what you just read? I mean, literally two seconds ago? Even when the topic is interesting, retaining information can be a challenge. Why is that? Is it because the delivery is dry? Was I not actively engaged?

Cognitive psychologists have many theories on why we forget. They categorize retention issues for better understanding, and many debate whether it’s even possible to truly forget. Some believe our brains create models and traces (physical brain changes) each time we encounter new information, creating a permanent effect on the brain. Many believe we do not forget, but if we don’t recall the information often, we lose the ability to retrieve it efficiently (kinda like exercising). No matter which theory is most accurate, there are a few things we can do to help.

Knowledge Check: Do you remember what you just read in this paragraph? No? Geez, you really do need the tips I’m about to discuss. I’ll keep them brief since you will not remember more than two or three anyway!

I’m a learning professional, so my learners’ ability to retain and access information is important to me. Usually, we attempt to help through knowledge checks, quizzes, and post-program tests. Those are all ok, but they are checking for recall. If you don’t give learners an opportunity to immediately apply what they have learned, they will lose more knowledge with each passing day. As their ability to retrieve the information decreases, so does the return on your training investment! To keep your content top-of-mind, use these four simple practices. They are things that learning professionals everywhere know, but don’t often include in their programs.

Extend the learning experience.  Is your training a one-time event, where folks check the “attended” box and bolt? Design a program that extends the learning well after the “main event.” There are many ways to do this, including follow-ups, on-the-job challenges, and learning networks. Using these methods, you are shortening the time and strengthening the connection between learning and behavior. Opportunities to apply learning drastically improve the odds of lasting behavior change. This approach is used often by athletic programs; athletes spend countless hours drilling newly learned skills. Be practical; consider your work environment and culture, then design a learning extension that works for your organization.

Involve managers and supervisors. Improve the “stickiness” of those new skills – give managers a role in the learning experience. Provide structured opportunities for them to engage, during and after the learning event, to ensure employees are applying new skills in the right ways. I’m not suggesting turning managers into “Big Brother” – surveilling employees; instead, design moments of reflection and coaching between the manager and their direct reports.

Make it real. Adults are interested in learning that has immediate relevance and impact to their jobs or personal lives. Adults also learn better through problem-centered training, rather than content-oriented training. The best thing we can do to improve the chances of retention and behavior change is to make the training real. Design scenarios that mirror the challenges they face during the average work day. And, to take it a step further, consider integrating post-training behaviors into employees’ official performance goals and rewards.

Use just-in-time (JIT) learning principles. When you can, train only what is immediately needed or used on the job. Just-in-time principles in the inventory process, for example, allow companies to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, but getting this right takes quite a bit of up-front planning. The same is true of just-in-time learning. The learning strategy must be well thought out. For example: What skills can reasonably be taught at the time of need? What are reasonable delivery options? Can the skills be self-taught – without a facilitator (who can be contacted if the employee is confused about the material or experience technical difficulties)? You have to invest some time and effort in JIT, but it can yield huge benefits in retention and, ultimately, the execution of desired behavior.

The information in this blog is not rocket science, and it’s certainly familiar to seasoned learning professionals. But project time pressures often force these retention-building elements onto the back burner. The hard reality is that if employees are not retaining information and demonstrating critical behaviors, we are wasting money and jeopardizing the organization’s delivery, customer service, brand, and reputation. Consider going back to the basics in your next program. Design opportunities to improve retention. After all, if learners aren’t learning and performing, what exactly are we doing?