Learning and development (L&D) experts and corporate training professionals spend countless hours designing programs that are intended to help employees learn valuable skills, all in the hopes that it will make them better at their jobs. This intentional professional development benefits both the employee and the organization in a myriad of ways.

The ever-evolving world of talent development has largely moved online, and in recent years it has seen plenty of innovation, making learning about all sorts of topics easier and more effective.

In 2018, a lot is going right in the world of instructional design. More organizations are adopting microlearning methods, which give employees flexibility and control over their training. Well-produced microlearning takes long-form content and adapts it for short-form learning, which helps employees remember more of what is being taught.

One of the biggest challenges that will continue to dominate corporate training conversations is how organizations and learners can overcome the forgetting curve – the brain’s natural loss of information that isn’t being used. The forgetting curve is nothing new; in fact, the theory was first introduced in the late 19th century by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.

Ebbinghaus gathered data about learning retention over time and discovered that the brain’s retention of information starts to fall drastically within just the first 24 hours.

Studies suggest that as much as 90 percent of information is forgotten within 30 days, and 70 percent of that loss happens within one day.

When you factor in the $160 billion annual budget that US businesses put into training, seeing 70 percent of that budget wasted after a single day is mind-boggling. Because of the fast rate at which we forget, your organization is probably spending more and seeing less in return. But the impact of the forgetting curve extends well past budget concerns.

When you’re training your employees about workplace safety, for instance, having employees forget 70 percent of what you’ve taught them by the next day can be downright dangerous.

The good news is that it is possible to counteract the forgetting curve and dramatically increase learning retention in training programs. Let’s explore a few strategies that corporate trainers can apply to start seeing better learning retention and training application with your employees.

Content Chunking

Content chunking is a concept that was first introduced back in 1965 by Harvard psychologist George A. Miller. Miller hypothesized that the short-term memory could only hold five to nine chunks of information at a time.

A study by the University of California found that in the modern workplace, employees are interrupted every 15 minutes, on average. That’s just one reason why, in the reality of today’s work environment, trainers can no longer rely on long-form e-learning courses to serve as a primary method of training.

Microlearning has been one of the biggest trends to hit the L&D scene since training first started moving online. Microlearning has been successful for multiple reasons, but its biggest benefit is that it focuses on chunks of learning content that have a narrow focus, rather than requiring a learner to only receive training from long, comprehensive courses.

When you adapt content for smaller chunks, you’re gaining a level of control over the amount of information your learners are retaining. Effectively spacing out this chunking means that you can offer memorable, comprehensive content that will be better retained.

Reinforce Learning

Another effective strategy to overcome the forgetting curve is to test learned material. Many employers require employees to take quizzes over the content they’ve viewed, and while that’s certainly a step in the right direction, there are multiple other ways to ensure the reinforcement of training content is sufficiently preventing learning from being lost.

Reinforcement strategies can include having learners write down information, making quiz or test questions challenging, and providing memory boosts for the content. Some of these may sound obvious, but I’ll go into more detail about each to emphasize why they work.

Write It Down

There should always be some response questions for learners to answer. This would require reviewing and possibly grading their responses, but studies show that writing down information shortly after first learning it works the verbal working memory, which is a part of the short-term memory.

Using questions that ask employees to put learned information into their own words forces them to recall and restate information. By writing the information down, learners use more channels to retain that information and understand how to turn learning into application.

Make it Hard

Doctors often put medical residents on the spot by asking very challenging, specific questions. These questions aren’t designed to necessarily be answered correctly at the time, but rather to help the resident remember the correct answer afterward.

When learners are forced to recall information by having to answer tough questions, two things generally happen. Either the learner remembers the answer and the new knowledge is reinforced more strongly, or the learner gets the question wrong, but the correct answer is committed to memory due to the difficulty of the question.

To see learning retention improve over time, the brain has to be challenged so that it better understands information and can apply it to different situations. This is what learning agility is all about.

Boost the Content

Professor Henry Roediger at Washington University in St. Louis has done extensive research on learning reinforcement, and his findings demonstrate that forced recall is the best way to counteract the forgetting curve and help learners retain information in the long run.

Dr. Roediger led a study wherein he invited students at the University to examine a series of photographs and remember as many of them as they could. Afterwards, one group left the lab, while a second group took a brief quiz where they simply wrote down as many of the photos as they could remember. A third group was given this same quiz three times in a row.

When all the students returned to the lab a week later and were asked to recall the photos, they found that the more recall opportunities a group had initially, the more photos the students recalled. The first group (no recall opportunity) remembered an average of 17.4 photos, the second group (one recall opportunity) remembered an average of 23.3 photos, and the third group (three recall opportunities) remembered 31.8 photos.

In another study done by Dr. Henry Roediger and Dr. Jeffrey Karpicke, they wanted to investigate how repeated studying stacks up compared to repeated testing. Three different groups of subjects were given four chances to study or be tested:

  • Study, study, study, study (SSSS)
  • Study, study, study, test (SSST)
  • Study, test, test, test (STTT)

Their findings were interesting because the group that only studied showed the highest recall of information after only five minutes had passed, but after a week had passed, the group that only studied once and was tested three times averaged a much higher recall than the group that only studied.

When tested one week after the initial studying and testing had been done, the amount of forgetting by the SSSS group was 52 percent, for the SSST group it was 28 percent, and for the STTT group it was only 10 percent.

Roediger’s findings in this study show the great importance of providing tests, or any opportunity for recall besides simply going over the information again.

Your learners want to retain information that applies to them, but unless the brain is shown that this information is worth remembering, it is likely to let it go. When information is brought to the learner’s mind, the brain begins to acknowledge it as important. By testing with difficult questions that encourage the learner to write, you can significantly increase the amount of information your learners retain.

Retention is absolutely crucial in an economy where $160 billion is spent by U.S. businesses on employee learning and training.

Organizations simply cannot afford to let 90 percent of those dollars go to waste, but without learning reinforcement strategies in place, that money put into employee training is being flushed away by the human brain’s natural processes.

To combat the forgetting process and get the highest level of learning retention out of your training content, be sure to offer small chunks of learning at a time, provide difficult quiz questions, and reinforce the learning with tests spaced out over time.

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