5 proven methods for maximising learning retention


f you’ve been in the learning and training industry for even a short while, you’ve probably heard a statistic along the lines of “we forget 90-95% of what we learn within a few days”.

The numbers might vary each time you hear it, but the gist remains the same: apparently, humans remember very little of what they learn.

Thus the game of “learning retention” was born, particularly in the corporate world where the idea of an imperfectly productive activity produces shudders of horror. KPIs were set, and the chase for greater retention rates began.

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Looking to boost learning retention isn’t a bad thing, but the reality is that learning retention is much more complex than a fixed percentage. We all retain different amounts of information based on a huge range of factors and so no set number can be accurately placed on learning retention.

Fortunately, what learners retain can be greatly affected by how we construct the learning experiences. Here 5 strategies and over 15 tactics you can use to boost how much your learners retain from training courses.

5 ways to maximise learning retention

#1 - Place important information upfront

If learners aren’t remembering everything, what are they remembering? It would be nice if learners only remembered the most important pieces of information, but unless you’ve made it clear what those pieces are… chances are they’ll take away a random jumble of facts, if that.

Therefore, it’s critical to foreground key information to boost the chances of learners remembering it. There are multiple ways to do this, including:

  1. Draw the learner’s eyes to important points by putting them in bold or making it larger. (Use sparingly however, as overusing this technique will confuse learners.)
  2. Important points should be referenced in your learning outcomes to clearly signpost the key takeaways.
  3. Ensure additional information works to support the key points, not distract from them.
  4. Summarise the key points in the conclusion.

#2 - Use stories to communicate learning 

Storytelling is by far the most effective teaching method when it comes to retention. Humans across cultures around the world have passed down knowledge through stories for thousands of years - because it works! Hearing a story that includes a lesson can be as effective for learning and remembering as experiencing the events yourself.

Stories won’t work for every kind of information, however. Slipping numbers and statistics into a story is likely to fall flat. Stories are much more effective for communicating the outcomes of actions. A few examples you could try include:

  1. Share a time when an employee failed to follow an important safety procedure and how it affected the team.
  2. Share the thoughts and feelings of an employee treated in a certain way by the people around them.
  3. Share a time when a situation was handled positively and how it affected the team.
Use stories to increase learning retention in your learning and training courses.

#3 - Avoid cognitive overload

Cognitive load is a critical concept in eLearning. In a nutshell, it refers to the amount of information we can hold in our working memory at any time. When a learner’s cognitive load is exceeded, it becomes exponentially more difficult to transfer information from their working memory to their long term memory, (aka damaging learning retention).

Cognitive overload occurs when too much information is dumped on the learner at once, or the information is presented in a way that is confusing, split over different areas or using the wrong medium. A few quick ways to prevent cognitive overload include:

  1. Deliver information in bite-sized chunks such as with a microlearning approach.
  2. Use the right medium. For example, if you’re teaching a learner about a square, don’t try to describe it, just show it!
  3. Avoid splitting information that forces learners to jump back and forth to get the whole picture.
  4. Ensure learners have the right foundational knowledge to understand the course content. Beginners will struggle to remember advanced content, even if you’ve done a good job of explaining it.

Want to know more about preventing cognitive overload? Check our blog on Why You Should Care About Cognitive Load Theory.

#4 - Space and repeat

Spacing is one of the most common tactics you’ll hear when it comes to improving learning retention, and there’s a good reason for it. It involves spreading out the learning experience over more than a single session, usually by asking learners to recall information from the learning session a day or a few days later.

Spacing has been heavily researched and shown to be highly effective at boosting learning retention. Different studies offer different formulas for what and how you should space learning, which can be disorienting and discouraging if you’re new to creating eLearning, but it shouldn’t be! Instead, be encouraged that almost any attempt at spacing is going to positively affect learning retention. That said, here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Aim to deliver your first follow-up within 1-3 days of the original learning session, as the retention drop-off is quickest in the first few days.
  2. Quick quizzes are the most popular method of spacing as it encourages an engaged recall of information. Make sure to include explanations of the correct answers for learners who answered incorrectly.
  3. Ask learners to recall key information, not the “nice-to-know” information, so that the right information is embedded in their memory.
Spacing your training over several days maximises learning retention.

#5 - Put it into action!

While the idea of learning styles is more myth than magic, what is true is that people greatly benefit from the chance to put their learning into action. “Blended” models of training that combine digital learning with in-person or on-the-job training have stood the test of time. In fact, the 70-20-10 model suggests that as much as 70% of training should be experiential!

However, the most basic and often most-overlooked aspect is simply making sure that what is taught in your training is actually carried out in day-to-day work. Too often, training courses communicate an idealised version of the company while everyone continues to do what they’ve always done. To avoid this clash, ensure that all training has buy-in and follow-through from key leaders in your organisation. Otherwise, any training that isn’t acted upon will be quickly ignored and forgotten.

Time to maximise your learning retention

It can be easy to get discouraged by the statistics you might hear around learning retention rates, but don’t be! Many are unsupported by research, and don’t reflect the many aspects that influence our ability to remember what we learn.

Instead, there are a huge number of ways to craft your learning experiences to maximise how much knowledge your learners retain. Try choosing one or two for your next project. What will you pick?

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May 20, 2021
Learning Design

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