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  • Rikki Lee

Retaining in the Brain: Motivating Your Learners

We’re all on a search for the Holy Grail; that is, the “Holy Grail” of training, or the maximum outcome of our efforts: Learn it once, retain it forever. But we can't succeed on our own. We should motivate learners to become our partners in training, or at least willing participants on our search. We need to help learners become invested in continuing their learning after training has been completed.

Most of us who develop training for clients or our company’s employees regularly face the reality of a learner’s low involvement in their ongoing retention: As long as a learner has passed the test and received their certificate, they feel they’ve accomplished everything that's expected of them. It’s rare that a learner actively tries to remember a large percentage of content two or more weeks after being taught in the classroom or online. They simply assume they'll remember it.

But soon after they return to the desk, the storefront or the factory floor, their “memory clock” begins its countdown toward oblivion. The forgetting curve, which illustrates the amount of learning lost after an amount of time, trends rapidly downward during each day that no further training is done; it's the bottom curve in the graph below. (We’ve discussed the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve in a blog post a couple of years ago, but you’ve probably forgotten about it.)

Storage-locker memory

It’s a characteristic of our brain to regularly put into storage those things we think we don’t need. The stuff is still there in our memory, just hidden and rarely accessed, on their way to be forever forgotten. (See the Disney/Pixar 2015 movie Inside Out for a “memorable” depiction of how that might work.) If we find out we really need that information later, we can try to summon it the moment that it’s time to use. But too often this occurs just after we’ve made a mistake in applying what we originally learned.

The amount of retention that learners achieve after they learn lies somewhere along a spectrum; at the two extremes are “forgotten forever” and “retained forever.” Neither extreme occurs at the time of learning, but learners tend to slide gradually toward “forgotten forever” over time.

You can help learners know what they should remember and what they can begin to forget. The best trainers aim for only the most "essential" information to be retained, such as safety practices, appropriate interpersonal behavior, effective sales techniques and so on. The remainder of the information might contain examples, corollaries, and facts and figures that can be set aside to make room for the essentials.

But if there were a proven way to train someone once so that they will retain it—not just after leaving their seat in the training room or after logging off the LMS, but for the rest of their lives—wouldn’t we already have been developing training that way? Unfortunately, no “Holy Grail” of training exists for anyone, much less for everyone. All learners are different, with some interested in retaining their knowledge and others not interested. Learners also have different expectations about what they can get out of their learning experience, which are either realized or dashed. Also, each overall learning experience is different, with some memorable and others forgettable; some of the responsibility for this falls on the trainer and/or the instructional designer.

Tips to increase retention

But we've got a few techniques you can use to help learners begin to increase retention after training—not to move it all the way to the “retained forever” edge of the spectrum, but a little closer to it than before.

Put them on notice: Before beginning the instruction and at various points during the learning experience, let everyone know that the training will become part of their job and maybe their lives. So, they’d better pay attention and remember, then continue to do so. Certain knowledge won’t just be on the final exam; learners will experience every day on or off the job. So they must be urged to become empowered and take control of the knowledge they gain: Learn the content, then recall it, refresh it and practice it every day.

Bring them closer to reality: Guiding learners to experience real-life situations is perhaps the best approach to improving retention, as long as the guidance is appropriate and ongoing. Use role-playing, hands-on practice and simulated conditions in the classroom and the lab whenever possible, or provide scenarios, interactions and even virtual reality in online courses. But the lessons of even these techniques can fade if they aren't reinforced almost every day.

For example, teaching a bus driver trainee a formula to keep the proper distance from the vehicle ahead of them is insufficient to gain the "muscle memory" enabling them to implement it flawlessly every time. Giving them real or simulated driving instruction improves their ability. But if months go by and there's been no refresher training on maintaining the proper distance and the learner hasn't constantly reinforced the concept in their memory, there's still a chance they might cause a rear-end collision...if they've forgotten it.

Give them a list: Not every bit of information that’s in a course is worth remembering. The brain tends to focus on the priorities: making the right decisions, performing tasks correctly, staying safe, and helping others in need. Identify a "top five" (or "top 10," but not much more) list of important items that you highlight as knowledge that must absolutely be retained. Introducing learners to exactly what’s essential will help move this knowledge into their working memory (what they use every day).

Take them back, then back again: Once you’ve developed the learning objectives for a course, decide how to structure them in the curriculum. You can increase retention by spreading the content in an interleaved way. That is, instead of teaching all of the first topic, then all of the second topic, and so on, regularly return them to earlier topics throughout the training and show them how these are related to other topics. Read this earlier blog post to find out more.

Put them to the test: A final exam is critical to demonstrate learning, but don’t ignore knowledge checks spread at various points throughout the course. These should emphasize the essential concepts and the supporting content. To further increase retention, make these knowledge checks as interactive and enjoyable as possible.

Help them relate: Include mnemonics, acronyms and real-life connections in the training to help learners remember lists or important points. And use interconnected shapes sometimes, instead of all bullet points all the time. The brain constantly looks to make connections among various bits of collected data to improve memory and skills, and it keeps those around for a longer period of time.

Keep them learning: After training is done, remind your learners of what knowledge they’ve gained in their recent training. For example, anyone who’s completed a classroom or online course would receive a series of emails that link to a refresher video or slides, plus a short quiz that would be submitted to the LMS to track learning progress. Or you can provide an annotated slide presentation, online and print resources, and other reference material that learners can use to refresh their memory. But also remind them that they're the ones in charge of continuing their own learning.

So, you should always strive to help your learners retain (and want to retain) knowledge long after their learning experience is over. You could even call this a "quest"; only this time, there’s no Holy Grail required.

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