If you’ve spent any time delving into the theory behind corporate training you’ve probably heard of the “forgetting curve”. An observation first proposed by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 1800s. The least you need to know about the forgetting curve is that it shows how quickly people forget new learning. An hour after training half of the information is gone. After a day 70% is missing. By the end of the first week only 10% of that knowledge is retained.Yikes, that’s a lot of wasted time, potential and of course money! Are you just wasting your time with training in the first place? The answer is “no” and it doesn’t have to be this way.

How do you Combat the Effects of Forgetting Science?

There are a multitude of methods you can use to combat the natural effects of forgetting. Some of them have to be implemented in the design and execution phases while some happen in the post-training period. In combination you can improve retention significantly. Save money on additional fruitless training and move towards actually implementing the new knowledge your trainees have gained to transform and improve your business.

Attention Seeking

One of the most effective ways in which you can aid retention is by assuring that your trainee pays attention to the material. The more focus and attention is paid to something, the better it’s encoded in the first place1. It’s biologically signalled as significant and is less likely to be wiped away with all the other information the brain considers unimportant.

What sort of things grab the attention of someone? Here are a few:

  • Things that are novel or unexpected.
  • Things that are emotionally charged.
  • Engaging narratives where trainees want to see a resolution.
  • Material that requires active participation.

Novel or unexpected things can come in many forms. You may present information in a way that no one expects, such as a song or use weird pictures from the internet to associate concepts within a model. Creativity is a key component of making things new and fresh. Challenging expectations and grabbing attention this way can be quite effective. Emotion and memory go hand-in-hand2. Memories that are encoded with emotional “tags” tend to stick around. This is one of the reasons severe negative emotions can lead to PTSD, but positive emotions can have a similar (albeit milder) effect. If your material integrates things that engender positive emotions or sensations you’ll help the encoding process too. Humour is particularly effective. If something is presented in a way that make people relaxed and get a laugh they may remember.

Ever feel like you had to turn the page on a story? How about being infuriated that you have to wait a week to resolve a cliffhanger TV episode? When you get people invested in a narrative they are intrinsically motivated to find the resolution to it. We have a natural tendency to ask “what happened?”. This is why the fables told to children that contain life lessons are so effective. The modern, grown-up equivalent need not be so opaque, but interesting illustrative fictional stories or true case studies that are notable in some way can get you a lot of engagement mileage. Try to build relevant and relatable scenarios that have a good chance of sticking in the mind.

Requiring that trainees give periodic feedback while receiving training is a great way to keep their attention. Asking for opinions, directing questions at individuals and opening up debate and other similar activities is a very stimulating way we can get people to participate. You can also use role play and interactive software such as Socrative or other live feedback systems. Indeed, the Socratic method of teaching is still one of the methods with the most depth. Instead of simply providing information, trainees are asked a series of questions that require logical thought and problem-solving on their part. Ideally you should have material that combines most or all of these aspects, these are the ingredients that, when combines with the right content, will ensure a much greater chance of successful encoding.

Connections

Another important thing to consider is that human memory is highly associative. If you can link new memories to existing ones they are less likely to disappear. The use of mnemonics is a good example of this. It takes a simple familiar word or phrase and then associates it with a more complex set of information. For example, music students learn the phrase “every good boy deserves fudge” which uses the letters EGBDF. These are the names of the notes on the lines of the treble clef in musical notation. For the notes between the lines they simply use the word FACE.

Mnemonics have proven invaluable in the sciences, medicine and engineering fields. These are all subjects with large volumes of information that needs to be structured and indexed within the mind. Even today mnemonics are key to this process. Building knowledge structures such as these simple mnemonics makes recall much easier than simply trying to memorize seemingly disconnected facts.

Consolidation

The human brain’s capacity for staying focused and absorbing new information is not infinite. You can’t expect people to remember much of a five hour session where they were overloaded with information, no matter how well presented. Make sure you adjust the rate and volume of new information so that people have a chance to actually encode the knowledge. Sleep also seems to play some role in memory consolidation3, so breaking your training into several short sessions over a few days will work better than trying to cram it into a single marathon session. Cramming training into long crunch sessions is a  decision usually taken for economic reasons rather than educational ones. In the long run however, everyone loses in this scenario.

Flipping the Classroom

A relatively new approach in education is that of the “flipped classroom”.4 Students are given material to review prior to the in person session. The actual face-to-face class time is then used for discussion and practical exercises. This has a couple of advantages. Although the deadline is the same, each students can work through the material at their own pace. The face-to-face time can then be used specifically to consolidate knowledge and focus on rehearsed practice, rather than simply being exposed to information. Flipping the classroom is especially good if you take into account that content can be digitally distributed and consumed without much effort these days. On the other hand, face to face time with a trainer is limited and very expensive. It therefore makes sense to have the trainer focus on ensuring trainees comprehend what they have been tasked to learn. At this early stage a good trainer can pick up if critical information has been lost and work to mitigate those losses.

Post-Training Retention

Implementing the abovementioned methods will stack the deck in your favour, staving off the raw losses that the forgetting curve describes, but the other critical phase comes when the main, formal part of training has concluded. This is where the loss of information really takes hold and where it is hardest to stem: outside of the classroom. Once the trainees have left the training environment your options for reinforcement become limited. There are other factors vying for their attention, thus putting their fragile new knowledge structures in danger.

While you can’t (and shouldn’t) make attempts to steal the full attention of your post-training trainees, you also shouldn’t let them go for long periods of time without rehearsal and reinforcement of the material they have learnt. Rehearsal is still the core objective when it comes to reinforcing knowledge and aiding recall and retention. In general however, it’s not the best strategy to use simple “parrot” rehearsal that simple has the trainee review material again and again. Rather you should use combined techniques that are engaging, but require recall and rehearsal as part of the overall process.

Click here to learn the Cost of the Forgetting Curve

Integration with Change Management

There’s nothing worse than having a training programme that’s out of step with an organization’s change management strategy. It’s especially unfortunate since getting these two processes to work in sync can do wonders for post-training retention. Why is this? Simply put, if the new knowledge gained in training is immediately relevant to the day-to-day work life of your trainees they are naturally required to repeatedly recall and apply this knowledge.

Too many organisations make the mistake of executing training programmes intended to facilitate a larger change management plan too early. The further you space the training to the actual implementation of the knowledge, the less likely your trainees will remember anything at all. So make sure your change manager and training manager are working closely together, it will benefit both their objectives greatly.

Spaced Rehearsal

Spaced rehearsal is another product of Hermann Ebbinghaus’ research into memory. Essentially it involves having rehearsals or repetitions of learned material at ever greater intervals. You can think of this as a sort of “anti-forgetting curve” method which is designed to reinforce memory of information at the points where it would otherwise be lost.

This method is based on a psychological effect known as the “spacing” effect. It’s an observation that rehearsing material at these intervals leads to high rates of recall in the long run. This is opposed to “mass presentation” or what we all know as cramming, a method which is frankly terrible at inducing long term recall, but can get you through an exam the next day. This is, incidentally one reason why immediate assessment of learning isn’t a great strategy. In general more complex information is spaced more frequently with shorter intervals, while less complex information can have longer intervals between rehearsals. More information can be found by clicking here.

Technology and Retention

Computer-based training can be a great boon to the goal of fostering retention. Since techniques such as spaced rehearsal rely on measurement of performance and scheduled rehearsal in response to that performance it stands to reason that automation of this process makes for a cheaper and more effective system.Thanks to the near-ubiquity of smart mobile devices the smartphone app now becomes a viable way to execute rehearsals while keeping track of both individual and group data.

Gamification methods that incentivise rehearsal are also now much more affordable and feasible to implement thanks to mobile computer technology. A good case in point is the system used by language learning company Duolingo. One of the aspects of the gamified Duolingo app deals with memory decay. Rewards earned for mastered content decay over time. The app clearly indicates which previously learned material should be rehearsed and when. Predictive learning analytics now also promises to give us greater insight into individual learning needs and a limited ability to predict training success. Allowing better allocation of training resources to trainees who are most likely to fail. Most importantly, using networked e-learning technology allows us to monitor whether trainees are completing rehearsal exercises and their performance on continuous feedback assessments. This is a far cry from the nearly blind way in which we’ve had to work in decades gone by.

Curved But Not Bent

The effects of the forgetting curve can be pernicious, but with adequate planning, appropriate techniques, monitoring and evaluation it’s entirely possible to turn it from a true bugbear into what amounts to a harmless kitten.

The downside is that it takes organisational commitment, dedication and investment to build a system of sustainable successful training. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that the problem of memory retention is an easy one. Still, achieving high levels of recall on a mass level is now much more feasible and economical than ever before. You can rest assured that every competing organisation is realising the potential gains now within their grasp. They are realising that these gains are worthwhile despite any related pains and are putting the necessary resources in place. In a world where a five percent difference in performance can hand someone the keys to a market that’s not a competition any business can afford to come second in.

For more on the forgetting curve, check out our posts ‘The Cost of Ignoring the Forgetting Curve’ and ‘Training and Retention: The Science of Forgetting’ or download our free eBook below.

References

1 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17379501

2 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959438804000479

3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768102/

4 https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7081.pdf

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