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Why and How learning retention works

October 29, 2018

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This is the second article in a five-part series on learning retention. The first blog established the importance of learning retention to L&D professionals, learners, and their managers. This blog will discuss how learning retention can combat forgetting and encourage the application of new knowledge and skills in the workplace.

No matter how well learning interventions are designed and delivered, participants will forget much of the content shortly after the learning event concludes. This is not a reflection of the quality of the learning or the intentions of the learner but a simple truth—humans forget what they don’t use or are not required to recall.  Worse, they not only forget on their own, but they return to hectic work schedules, competing priorities, and other barriers that make it difficult to keep up with even the most useful knowledge, skills, and tools that could improve performance in the workplace.

As highlighted in their blog, 3-star Learning Experiences, Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen highlight research-based strategies that are effective and can support ongoing learning in an article titled “Learning the Smart Way.” Most of these strategies involve practice that is distributed over time.  Practice tests and other approaches that prompt people to reflect on learning content and consider what is accurate and how it applies to their work appear to be effective because these approaches facilitate “the integration of new information into existing schemas in our memory.”

In the first blog in this series, we established the case for why learning retention matters to L&D professionals, learners, and their managers. Now we also have a case for learning retention based on the realities of forgetting and proven approaches to combat forgetting and support learning—focusing on ongoing opportunities to test, reflect, and practice using new knowledge and skills. As you will see, the learning retention approach described in this blog series compels learners to test their knowledge, reflect on learning content, and consider how to apply it to their work.

So what approach to learning retention would be effective? We need an approach that supports these effective learning principles after participants complete a learning event. We need an approach that is easy for participants to engage with and provides them with tangible benefits. Ideally, the approach would also provide us with data that helps us understand which learning points are sticking and how participants are using new knowledge and skills to achieve results in the workplace.

What Humentum finds effective is learning retention that leverages technology nearly everyone working in our sector already has access to and probably uses every day. What is this magical technology?  Email.

“Email!?” you may be muttering quietly to yourself “Email is a problem not a solution!” But what we find is emails that deliver value are appreciated. So how do we make sure these emails deliver value?

Most emails contain quiz-type questions grounded in important learning objectives. Emails are delivered to participants by email on a regular basis, starting soon after completion of the event. Participants need only click on a link in the email to answer the question. There’s no need for participants to log into a system to participate—within 30 seconds participants can contemplate a question that arrives by email and answer it.

Sometimes questions are connected to an overall scenario, and sometimes the questions are based on individual scenarios.

After answering the question, participants are given additional information, context, resources, and ideas to apply the concept in the workplace. This reinforces the notion that the learning retention program is a support tool rather than an assessment. It also encourages participants to apply new knowledge and skills in the workplace and helps them understand how to do so.

The final question delivered in the learning retention program, sent approximately two months after the learning event concludes, asks participants to share how they’ve applied new knowledge and skills in the workplace—offering them another opportunity to reflect on what they’ve already done and what more they can still do.

Humentum has been delivering learning retention programs since April 2015 (as InsideNGO until July 2017). In just over three years of implementation, we’ve sent over 70,000 emails to thousands of workshop participants. Through that experience, we’ve learned a few things about delivering optimal value through these emails:

  • We ask questions that relate to important and tangible learning points. Participants are less likely to engage with learning points that are abstract or circumstantial.
  • We write questions that are easy to understand (i.e., not overly complicated or too long), although that doesn’t necessarily mean the questions are easy to answer.
  • We provide responses that not only tell participants whether they got the answer right but also give them ideas of how to apply and the results that can be achieved.
  • We use the learning retention program to create room for reflection and to encourage application of new knowledge, skills, and tools.

Many of these principles can be repurposed to support learning retention and learning transfer for any type of learning activity.  Whether you’re a learning and development professional, a learner, or a supervisor invested in professional development, you can extend the learning benefit through learning retention.  A few follow-up emails after an event with reminders or tips; a post-workshop quiz; meeting time dedicated to reflecting on learning.  These are just a few other ways to support learning retention.

In the next blog, we’ll explore the benefits of learning retention.

To summarize the key points in this blog:

  • Without support after a learning event, participants will forget much of what they learned and have difficulty overcoming other barriers to translating learning to improved performance.
  • There are evidence-based strategies to support ongoing learning, most of which involve practice distributed over time.
  • Humentum has successfully used emails to deliver learning retention by focusing on tangible learning points covered in quiz-type questions and encouraging the application of new knowledge and skills in the workplace.

Intrigued by the concept of learning retention? The final blog in this series “Leveraging the learning retention approach” includes an opportunity to sign up for a learning retention program on the topic of learning retention.  The program will be delivered to you by email and will include fun, quiz-type questions that reinforce the concepts discussed in the blog and help you consider ways to use or adapt the concepts and approach in your work.