It's up to instructional designers and training facilitators to help learners maximize knowledge retention. Memory is essentially the process of encoding (inputting), storage (organizing), and recall (accessing) of information, and there are tactics that can be used in deliverables to reinforce these functions.
First, it’s helpful to understand how memory basically works. Our brains are wired to forget in order to manage our cognitive loads, which is why we forget what we don’t reinforce.
From a scientific standpoint, our brains work through cells and their connections to other cells. When we have a new thought, like "pink elephants wearing tutus," a neuron for that thought forms and builds connections to other related neurons in the brain—in this example, the ones for elephants, pink, tutus, drunkenness, cartoon images, and so on. As that neuron connects to its associations, all of those neurons are activated, and a type of electricity zooms across the neuron and reinforces it. But if no additional electricity zooms across that neuron, the connecting dendrites start atrophying immediately, and that neuron can disappear within 20 minutes of first forming.
The schema are how those connections are organized in the brain for recall. We encode a lot of information, but it will have fewer connections if we cannot attach it to existing brain structure. This is why a proven method for teaching abstract concepts is to first tie it to and build off of more concrete or familiar concepts. One technique is to use examples or analogies, for example: reinforcing a brain neuron strengthens it, similar to adding strands into a rope where each strand thickens the whole and adds strength to the final product.
Here are several techniques learning professionals can use to help strengthen learning retention, with some examples specific to instructor-led training, virtual ILT, and eLearning usages.
Actively Involve LearnersGet them actively participating by using group discussion, practice by doing, or teaching or sharing with colleagues.
- ILT: Have learners build their WIIFM as a class. Have teams build strategies or tools for use back on the job.
- VILT: Use breakout sessions for teams to create a teach-back presentation on a topic.
- eLearning: Create simulation-like activities wherein learners practice the same skills they will use with the new system or software.
Stimulate Multiple SensesAdd images or visuals to the audio, as well as elements when viable, like taste, touch, or smell. Match the learning environment to the working environment—or have them visualize successfully performing the task, a common strategy among athletes that is making its way into the business world.
- ILT: While learners are working in teams, play music that helps provide a sense of time or energy to the room. Don’t just show a picture of an apple for an analogy—put an apple on every table.
- VILT: Use vivid images to reinforce the message, not just words. Consider mirroring the challenge of PechaKucha.
- eLearning: Consider adding more audio than just narration, such as background or theme music where appropriate, or sound effects, such as for right or wrong answer feedback. Or, have the narrator lead a guided visualization, such as for practicing improved communication.
Effectively Engage Emotions
For every new piece of information received, the brain does a quick prioritization: first is for safety/survival, second is for emotion, and third is for meaning. Emotional messages last far longer than strictly informational messages.
- ILT: Famed training guru Sivasailam Thiagarajan, better known as Thiagi, has an exercise in which he describes three patients in need of care—two are elderly, and a third who is completely helpless and requiring extensive care—and asks participants which they would choose to care for first. The third patient is rarely chosen, until it is revealed to be an infant, at which point there is a visible emotional shift among the learners. Use evocative images.
- VILT: Training consultant Art Kohn asks participants to evaluate a series of logos, either for the number of colors or if they had positive or negative/neutral feelings to company. Those who evaluate for emotion have greater retention than those making a non-emotional evaluation.
- eLearning: Imbed testimony or other videos that engage the learner and evoke an emotional response, like this Heart of ICWA series from the National Indian Child Welfare Association.
People naturally pay attention to things that surprise them. A unique image will leave a lasting impression.
- ILT: Having the presenter interact with a projected image is a great attention-grabber. For example, using animation to create the illusion that she is touching the letter c in “reactive” and dragging it to the front of the word to form “creative.”
- VILT: Consider creating a surprise in an activity that can help challenge our assumptions. Thiagi calls these Jolts.
- eLearning: Break from the standard frame or activity, making each screen look and act more like a webpage or image from a mobile device and navigating intuitively through selection, as is Caveo Learning’s approach to digital learning experiences.
Use Spacing and Spaced Repetition
Learners have greater capacity for retention when the learning is spread out over time. Repeated recall of information improves retention to about 80%. One technique is a post-course discussion, such as a discussion with a manager about what they got out of a course or how they intend to use new skills and information.
- ILT: Ask learners to create questions (with answers) on index cards as an end-of-day activity, and go through some of the questions to close the day. The next morning, again go through some of the cards as a start-of-day review.
- VILT: Include activities spaced throughout program for reflection and sharing of what has been learned, and consider using skills practiced earlier to build into the new skill or learning activity.
- eLearning: Use follow-up questions or activities to trigger recall of the learning (this also can work with facilitated training modes). These post-course boosts of learning really show a marked success for retention.
Set a Brain-Friendly Learning Environment
Some methods to build those positive neurotransmitters include:
- Nature stimuli (such as images, sounds, or colors of nature)
- Laughter, fun, and humor (avoid dark or mean-spirited humor, such as picking on someone)
- Positive social interactions (we are social creatures, and so social interaction automatically focuses the attention)
Simplify and Streamline Content
Design learning around core messages that are chunked into logical flows. Show how one bite relates to the next bite of the learning, helping our brains build out the schema and connections for easy recall.
Make Good Use of Images
83% of our brain processes visual data. Diagrams help us see relationships of data.
Increased retention, then, is a result of aiding the human memory in its encoding, storage, and recall functions. By varying the methods and environment in which we supply our learners the content, we can help their brains not forget! Spacing out recall activities, including same day of learning and over the days following, is highly effective to retention because sleep is where we organize the storage and reinforce learning. Think about it before you go to sleep tonight and see what you recall tomorrow.
Star Fisher is a senior instructional designer with Caveo Learning. Fisher has decades of experience as an instructional designer and has been called the “Games Guru.” She holds a master’s in instructional and performance technology from Boise State University and is a Certified Professional in Learning & Performance (CPLP).
Terry Goins is a senior instructional designer with Caveo Learning. Before joining Caveo in 2013, Goins worked in various design, development, and facilitation roles for a variety of large companies, including Halliburton, Northrop Grumman, and Anheuser-Busch. Based in the Houston area, she holds a business degree from Texas Tech University.