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Overcoming the Gravity of Learning Decay

By Michael Macnaughton on September 30, 2016

Overcoming the gravity of learning decay

Gravity is a natural force that cannot be avoided; let’s look at learning decay in the same way. To a certain extent, it is unavoidable. Like astronauts who get to experience zero gravity, a rare few people have photographic memories and experience no learning decay. However, for the vast majority of people, learning decay is going to happen. Here are some examples of learning decay:

  • You read a new and interesting fact, but when you try to remember it next week you can’t recall the details.  
  • You learn something new by watching a video, maybe tell a few people about it, and when the momentum fizzles you forget all about it.  
  • You participated in a training session to learn new skills for your work but there was no retention plan or training follow-up so you stop using the new skills.

Visualize what each of those examples looks like if you were to draw it on paper: a blip, several peaks with valleys, and a smooth curve that peaks at the top and then gradually comes down. This curve is traditionally called the forgetting curve or the learning decay curve, and it represents how much information you can retain after learning something new. For most people, about 70% of the new information is lost within 24 hours, and after a month the retention rate is closer to 5-10%.

It’s clear that flying is the best way to defy gravity, and that sustained training is the best way to maintain new knowledge. Understanding how different teaching methods deliver varying retention rates is the first step in overcoming the forgetting curve. According to the National Training Laboratories, retention varies depending on the type of learning, as follows:

  • Lecture - 5%
  • Reading - 10%
  • Audio/visual - 20%
  • Demonstration - 30%
  • Discussion - 50%
  • Learning by doing - 75%
  • Teaching others - 90%

Learning by doing, also called experiential learning, stands out as the most effective method for acquiring a new skill or learning a new concept. After learning by doing, teaching others will further cement the new knowledge.

Another important way to overcome the learning decay curve is to implement measurement and retention strategies. The same concept of gravity applies here. If you do a single refresher course after a training event, you will see a jump in retention, perhaps temporarily increasing the retention rate from 10% to 30%. Implementing a traditional ongoing retention strategy that focuses only on reiterating knowledge without measuring outcomes might allow you to bounce up to peaks of 75%.

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A comprehensive retention and measurement program will allow you to fly at 90% and maintain a high retention rate. This type of strategy includes multiple approaches, such as:

  • Delivering reinforcement activities through an app or online interface
  • Quizzes and knowledge tests
  • Videos
  • Surveys
  • Feedback opportunities
  • Milestones and metrics for measurement
  • Reporting tools to allow management to track progress  

You can’t fly without wings and you can’t effectively maintain learning without hands-on, real-life experience. If you want to get the most from your investment in organizational training, don’t fight learning decay, overcome it by choosing your teaching methods wisely to maximize training results and following up with a comprehensive retention and measurement program.New Call-to-action

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Michael’s singular focus is rooted in staying connected to learners the moment they step out of the classroom and back into their busy jobs. As SVP of Learning Performance, Michael brings business savvy depth to ensuring learning is reinforced, applied and is optimally aligned to delivering on strategic objectives. His proven track record in creating measurement frameworks and reinforcement solutions that add value to the learner, leaders and executive sponsors is highly valued across the spectrum of our client engagements.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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