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Leadership Training You’ll Never Forget: How to Fight The Forgetting Curve

You’ve just finished some leadership training. You’re excited, energized, and ready to use new feedback techniques with your employees. Unfortunately, you can barely remember half of the training content a few weeks later.

The impact of the forgetting curve among leaders is much more costly than for individual contributors. Some studies have suggested that 25% of employees leave because of their leadership [1]. The cost of this turnover alone would be substantial, but this doesn’t account for the decrease in productivity for the employees that stay.

Everyone experiences a forgetting curve after learning, but what changes to leadership training can increase knowledge retention among learners?

The Forgetting Curve

The Forgetting Curve, conceptualized in 1885 by Herman Ebbinghaus, is an attempt to study how information is forgotten over time if no steps are taken to retain it [2]. The information we’re currently thinking about and able to retain in the moment is called Short-term Memory. But, without taking action to retain information, short-term memory will only last a few seconds [3]. Recent research suggests learners can only store four pieces of information in short-term memory at a time, though this doesn’t account for individual differences between learners.

So, learning capacity is a limited resource. Expecting learners to be able to hear information once and retain it long enough to become useable knowledge is short-sighted. There are a few basic causes that contribute to a post-training forgetting curve:

  1. When learners don’t understand how the training applies to them, they will disengage from the training. It’s important to establish relevancy in a way that applies specifically to each learner.
  2. The time between learning and application is too long, and chances are learners will need a review of the training when it comes time to apply the training to their work.
  3. The length or scope of the training was too broad, so learners were expected to understand and process too many topics or too disparate of topics.
  4. The training style wasn’t the correct fit for the learners, so they had trouble understanding the content. This often occurs when only one type of training method is used.

Perhaps, some of these issues resonate with you more than others. Recognizing areas for improvement is important, so how can leadership training combat the forgetting curve among learners?

Leadership Training that Leads to Behavior Change

The common goal of any leadership training is behavior change. The hope is that learners process the content, examine their current behaviors, and make changes aligned with their performance objectives. Secondary to that goal is helping employees retain the information and maintain the new behaviors, rather than falling back into old habits. So, here are a few solutions that can increase leadership training’s potential to inspire behavior change among learners and retain the training’s information longer.

  1. While it might be cost-efficient to train as many learners as possible at once, consider the detriment of such broad training. Instead, try designing training for more specialized groups. This will certainly take more time, but in the long run the training will be more personalized and lead to more memory retention. Learners need to know why the training applies to them specifically.
  2. Understand that training modalities have an additive effect. So, using a variety of training styles will make more complex memories that are more easily encoded and more quickly recalled. Try using a blend of video modeling, simulations, checklists, quizzes, critical thinking applications, etc. Or consider turning the tables during ILT and allowing learners the opportunity to teach each other concepts.
  3. Think of leadership training as a journey, rather than an event. Subsequent knowledge checks or quick tips that reiterate or expands upon the original training content significantly improve retention. Don’t assume that one catch-all training will suffice.

In short, the more leadership training can focus on individuals’ needs and the specific action they can take to improve their work behavior, the more relevant and necessary training will feel.

Practical Skills to Aid in Knowledge Retention

Have you discovered note-taking strategies that increase your engagement and knowledge retention? Or do you recognize memory aids that help you remember information, like mnemonic devices or checklists? When you fail to understand training or experience the forgetting curve, do you seek out resources to fill knowledge gaps?

Focus on the Right Results

Training is often considered from the point of view of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. But, this may just lead to training that’s one-size-fits-all and practical for no one. The careful application of blended learning to leadership training provides a framework that can increase knowledge retention and create behavior change. Consider the role that knowledge retention plays in leadership training as you design your next training program. Successful training continues until learners can independently maintain their new behaviors and free-recall training content.


[1] The Cost of Poor Leadership

[2] History of the Forgetting Curve

[3] Short Term Memory