The psychology community has gathered a wealth of research around the mechanisms of memory, and some of it has bled over into employee onboarding. Several theories have influenced best practices in instructional design strategy for training and post-training support, but they primarily focus on memory consolidation, retention, recall, and how we forget newly acquired information over time.
Rather than dissect primary research, this article will focus on how to apply relevant theories to instructional design strategy to make post-training support more effective and help employees retain what they’ve learned.
The Forgetting Curve
Generally, information processing can be broken down into four stages: attending, encoding, storing and retrieving. In order for your learners to effectively use what they’ve learned (retrieval), your training methods have to enable effective attending, encoding, and storage. But, learning isn’t that simple. There are often hiccups along the way that result in your employees forgetting essential information.
We call that The Forgetting Curve: the rate at which we lose newly acquired information. Essentially, our brains are programmed to forget nonessential information over time. Some studies show that by 30 days after learning something, we only retain about 2-3% of the new information. Luckily, this can be drastically improved by using the right training methods, so here are a few ways to help knowledge stick.
The role of repetition in encoding and storage is one of the more easily applicable theories from psychology. Presenting information in specific intervals enables a process of Long-Term Potentiation (LTP), which encodes information for storage in our long-term memory. If you reinforce information after intervals of ten minutes, as described in this experiment, then you can significantly increase memory storage and reduce the total hours of post-training. Your learners will be more likely to internalize training, change their behaviors, and maintain those changes for longer.
Typically, post-training designs will revisit information to help maintain knowledge after the initial training course, but the schedule of reinforcement is on a much larger scale (i.e., days, weeks, months). The research around this method also shows improved knowledge transfer by using action plans, performance assessment, and peer meetings. We suggest using both methods to build repetition into your learning program design.
When people receive information through different modes, our brains encode the information in multiple places. That’s because a complex memory isn’t a single object, but rather an amalgam of different component pieces. Moreover, it’s easier to retrieve information if you have more component pieces representing that information. So, presenting information in various ways is another way to help knowledge stick.
You can vary input both in the initial training and in post-training support. For example, you can present your content in video, text, or graphics, in-person, through scenarios and practice. After the initial training, continue to vary your input. Use reviews, real-life practice, and mentoring to follow up in the days and weeks after training.
Knowledge retention increases when learners can connect what they are learning to what they already know. Integrating new information into an existing framework gives us some context and helps our brains understand why new information is important. For example, chess players are able to memorize where chess pieces are on a board more easily if those pieces are in legitimate configurations.
Well-designed training should draw on this idea, presenting information that builds upon previous training courses. If you can relate new information to older content, then your learners will reinforce older material while encoding new information more easily.
Spaced repetition, varied input, and connections can help your learners retain information, but they also need to be motivated to consume training content throughout the whole learning experience.
Research has shown a clear relationship between training outcomes and motivation. So, it’s best to incentivize continued improvement through post-training activities. One simple way to accomplish this is to make sure your employees understand the benefits of their training—focus on how the training will help them perform their job duties better and how their role will impact the company. Finally, make it easy for your employees to consume content. Microlearning and mobile learning can increase content consumption by making content more palatable and accessible.
Training is only effective if it sticks. Luckily, research in psychology has given us a few insights into the mechanisms of memory. If you can apply these insights to your post-training design, then you will surely see improvements in your training outcomes. Help your learners retain information with spaced repetition, varied input, and clear connections. But, also remember a little motivation goes a long way.