The human brain is wired to forget. Not all information is needed beyond the immediate moment or situation. It’s up to instructional designers and training facilitators to help learners maximize knowledge retention. Memory is essentially the process of encoding (inputting), storing (organizing) and recalling (accessing) information, and there are tactics that can be used in deliverables to reinforce these functions.

Our brains work through cells and their connections to other cells. When we have a new thought, like “pink elephants wearing tutus,” a neuron for that thought forms and builds connections to other related neurons in the brain. As the neurons connect, they are activated, and electricity zooms across the neuron and reinforces it. But if no additional electricity zooms across that neuron, the connecting dendrites start atrophying immediately, and that neuron can disappear within 20 minutes of first forming.

We encode a lot of information, but a piece of information will have fewer connections if we cannot attach it to existing brain structure. That is why a proven method for teaching abstract concepts is to tie it to and build off of more concrete or familiar concepts. One technique is to use examples or analogies; for example, reinforcing a brain neuron strengthens it, like adding strands into a rope where each strand thickens the whole and adds strength to the final product.

Here are several techniques learning professionals can use to help strengthen learning retention, with some examples specific to instructor-led training (ILT), virtual ILT (VILT) and e-learning.

Actively Involve Learners.

Get learners actively participating by using group discussion, practice, or teaching or sharing with colleagues.

  • ILT: Have learners build their “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) as a class and teams build strategies or tools to use back on the job.
  • VILT: Use breakout sessions for teams to create a presentation on a topic.
  • E-learning: Create simulations where learners practice the same skills they will use on the job.

Stimulate Multiple Senses.

Add images or visuals to the audio as well as elements like taste, touch or smell, when possible. Match the learning environment to the working environment, or help learners visualize successfully performing the task, a common strategy among athletes that is making its way into the business world.

  • ILT: While learners are working in teams, play music that helps provide a sense of time or energy to the room. Don’t just show a picture of an apple for an analogy; put an apple on every table.
  • VILT: Use vivid images to reinforce the message, not just words. Consider mirroring the challenge of PechaKucha.
  • E-learning: Consider adding more audio, such as music, sound effects that deliver feedback or a narrated guided visualization.

Effectively Engage Emotions.

The brain quickly prioritizes every new piece of information received: first for safety or survival, second for emotion, and third for meaning. Emotional messages last far longer than strictly informational messages.

  • ILT: Use evocative images. For example, training guru Sivasailam Thiagarajan leads an exercise in which he describes three patients in need of care – two elderly and one who is helpless and requires extensive care – and asks participants whom they would care for first. The third person is rarely chosen, until he reveals the patient to be an infant.
  • VILT: Training consultant Art Kohn asks participants to evaluate a series of logos, either for the number of colors or the feelings they associate with the company. Those who evaluate for emotion have greater retention rates.
  • E-learning: Embed testimony or other videos that engage the learner and evoke an emotional response.

Exploit Novelty.

People naturally pay attention to things that surprise them. A unique image leaves a lasting impression.

  • ILT: A great attention-grabber is when the presenter interacts with a projected imager – for example, by using animation to create the illusion that she is touching the letter C in “reactive” and dragging it to the front of the word to form “creative.”
  • VILT: Consider creating a surprise in an activity that can help challenge learners’ assumptions. Thiagarajan calls these surprises jolts.
  • E-learning: Break from the standard frame or activity. For example, make each screen look and act more like a webpage or mobile image, and provide intuitive navigation.

Use Spacing and Spaced Repetition.

Repeated recall of information improves retention to about 80 percent. One technique is for learners to have a post-course discussion, such as a conversation with their manager about how they intend to use new skills.

  • ILT: Ask learners to create questions (with answers) on index cards, and go through some of the questions to close the day. Answer more questions the next morning as a review.
  • VILT: Include activities throughout the program for reflection and sharing, and consider building into the activities the skills practiced earlier.
  • E-learning: Use follow-up questions or activities to trigger recall. These post-course boosts of learning are markedly successful in improving retention.

Create a Brain-Friendly Learning Environment.

Some methods to build positive neurotransmitters across modalities include nature stimuli, humor and positive social interactions.

Simplify and Streamline Content.

Design learning around core messages that are chunked into logical flows. Show how one “bite” relates to the next, helping learners build the connections for easy recall.

Make Good Use of Images.

Eighty-three percent of our brain processes visual data. Diagrams help us see relationships of data.

Increased retention is a result of aiding the human memory in its encoding, storage and recall functions. By varying the methods with which and environment where we deliver content, we can help their brains remember. Spacing out recall activities over the days following learning is effective, because sleep is where we organize and reinforce learning. Think about it before you go to sleep tonight, and see what you recall tomorrow!