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The Forgetting Curve: Has Organizational Training Changed Since 1880?

The_Forgetting_Curve-_Has_Organizational_Training_Changed_Since_1880.jpgIn this world, there are some things that constantly change and some that will always stay the same. A hundred years ago most people were lucky to have a telephone in their own home, let alone a smart phone in every pocket. However, the need for humans to communicate and interact will always be present, no matter which devices we use. You can view the human brain in the same way. What you learn can range from a new recipe to flying a plane, but how you learn isn’t going to change.

Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneered the study of the human memory in the late 1800s, and through experimentation he discovered the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve is a visual representation of the exponential loss of knowledge over time. When you learn something new, your knowledge level is at 100%, but over time you forget the information you learned and the retention rate drops as the days and weeks elapse. His discoveries still hold today as the human brain has not changed. However, we do have the power to decide how we use this information.

Let’s look at organizational training as an example. There will always be developments that improve the way you do business. Whether it’s a concept like the Agile Methodology or a new web-based software system that helps you manage projects more efficiently, there is always something new to learn if you want to continuously improve. However, the best methods for organizational training remain unchanged.     

Organizational Training and the Forgetting Curve

One of the most critical elements of successful organizational training is that it has to stick. Learning a new skill or concept is useless if the information isn’t retained long enough to apply it to real-world situations. Ebbinghaus showed that knowledge starts to quickly decay in the first twenty minutes after learning, and continues significantly within the first hour. It continues to drop steeply every day for the first few days and then starts to level out. So, anything you have retained after several days will stay with you longer. The trick is to retain the information during the steep slope at the beginning of the curve.

Almost everybody can relate to the learning decay curve: how much do you remember from your high school chemistry class? Even if we gave you a chemistry lecture today, how much would you remember tomorrow morning? Unless you’re a chemist who uses that knowledge daily, probably not much. However, you probably do remember at least one or two key moments when you got to do a fun or exciting experiment. The experience sticks with you.

How can you increase retention for organizational training? By using the same methods that have worked for hundreds of years. We have identified 22 methods for improving retention; here are just a few examples:

Retention Starts with Experiential Learning

The nature of the initial learning event is crucial for successful retention after organizational training. Long-term retention of new information requires four components:

  1. Conviction - Participants must want to apply their new knowledge for the long term. They need to have their heart in it.
  2. Knowledge - They have to know what to do, what not to do, and the reasons behind those decisions. The must have their head in it.
  3. Skill - They have to know how to apply their new skills to their real jobs. They have to have their hands in it.
  4. Consequence - They have to know what the expectations are after the training. The must be able to harvest the benefits of their new skills.

Incorporating all of these elements into experiential learning automatically results in better retention because participants are invested in the process, have the tools they need to apply their new knowledge, and most of all, they want to use what they have learned.

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Positive Reinforcement Results in Better Retention

There is no doubt that one of the many benefits of positive reinforcement is better retention of new knowledge. When individuals are rewarded for demonstrating new skills, they will continue to perform in a way that generates more rewards. There are countless ways to do this, but in today’s world one of the most efficient methods is through digital tools.

Some of the benefits of using digital tools for positive reinforcement include:

  • Enables constant access
  • Easy-to-track points and rewards
  • Provides a self-motivating system
  • Allows individuals to continue learning
  • Gives feedback for continuous improvement  

A good example of a way to use a digital positive reinforcement system is for safety training in a manufacturing environment. The stakes are high so it’s important that every individual retains the information they learn at organizational training events. Having a digital system allows them to log in any time to complete additional training modules, pop quizzes, and other tools that test their knowledge. The more they participate, the more rewards they earn. Business owners get the benefits of long-term retention of safety knowledge, and individuals enjoy the process of solidifying their skill set.

Leaders Make Organizational Training Last Longer

Creating lasting change in an organization must start with leadership, and retention is a key component. Holding leader-led discussions six to eight months after organizational training events contributes to better retention by reinforcing the importance of the training and showing how new skills can be applied on the job. It also presents an opportunity for leaders to do the three essential activities for cultural transformation: modeling, coaching, and requiring. A leader-led discussion shows participants that managers and executives are demonstrating the behaviors they want to see, allows them to coach individuals as needed, and reinforces that the behavior changes that were presented at the training are mandatory.

There are plenty of ways to ensure retention after organizational training, but the fact remains that you must do something. A single experiential training event has benefits, but unless you follow up with methods for encouraging retention, you will be a victim of the forgetting curve.     

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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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