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How to Make Your Training Stick

Your company delivers an expensive new safety training program to teammates and then, like any smart company does, spends the next few months measuring the effects. Immediately after the training, you find that your newly trained crew members are only using two of the six approaches that training presented to them. Or six months after you trained your home office staff, you discover that right after training, they started applying some of the customer-service strategies you taught them, but have now abandoned them and it’s back to “business as usual.”

Frustrating? Costly? Infuriating? Yes, it is all of those things — and worse. How can you get trainees to absorb more of the information you give them, and increase the chances that that information will “stick” and be put into use for the long term? Let’s take a closer look.

Cognitive Load Theory

According to psychologists, including Professor Ton de Jong at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and John Sweller at the University of New South Wales, who have studied how people learn, the human brain can be expected to absorb a relatively small percentage of the information delivered in a learning situation — at times as little as 10 percent. But it is possible to improve that percentage dramatically.

To understand how that percentage can be increased, it is important to understand Cognitive Load Theory, which is a way of understanding the effect that sensory inputs have on your ability to process information and to learn. When your senses are processing a lot of input, they filter how much information gets passed on into your short-term memory. In training, your learners are dealing with a lot of additional input that is competing with the information you want to teach. They’re adjusting their eyes to see your slides, getting distracted by other trainees at their tables, trying to get comfortable in their seats, and maybe even getting their first gulp of coffee.

When information does get around that sensory/cognitive load, it makes it to your short-term memory, where you think about it. You judge it and if it is memorable, it then gets passed into your long-term memory where you can use it later.

If a learner’s brain decides that the information is important when it is in short-term memory, he or she will subconsciously transfer it to long-term memory. That information then becomes what he or she learns.

New information only gets processed between 10 and 15 seconds in short-term memory. If that information doesn’t stick during that time, it is lost. So, think of short-term memory as a kind of buffer zone that fills up quickly and then empties as new information flows in.

What Can Help

There are a few tips that can help move information from the short-term to long-term memory.

• Mnemonic devices: Back when you were a student in high school, you might have memorized the sentence, “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” to help you memorize the planets in our solar system in the order in which they appear from the sun (i.e., Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto). Acronyms are useful in training, too. For example, the acronym AIDA (standing for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) is sometimes used to remind sales trainees of different stages of making a sale.

• Activities: Participation in shared group activities is another effective way to reinforce concepts and help them move into long-term memory. Quizzes and self-tests delivered at key moments during training also reinforce concepts and skills.

• Resources: A content library for trainees to use once training is done can be very effective in making sure key concepts move into long-term memory. For example, you can create an online content library for field technicians to access; it explains procedures and concepts that were covered in training, though probably not fully absorbed.

• Storytelling: Let trainees tell stories that explain experiences they have had that relate to a concept or skill you are teaching (e.g., “Here’s what I once did when I was having that problem…”). Storytelling reinforces key concepts for the person who is telling the story and for the people who are listening, too.

• Scenario-based learning: Present a simulated situation and let trainees work through and try solutions. This helps learners realize, “If this happens, this is how I will handle it.”

• Certificates and certifications: These allow trainees to feel satisfied and rewarded for learning specific skills or behaviors. When trainees have been recognized for learning important information, it tends to stick.

• Games: Games resonate especially well with millennials, although other generations like them. They work much better than bombarding trainees with information. For example, you can have trainees practice new skills in a virtual environment that replicates one of your projects.

And add a competitive element, because competitive games can help training concepts stick. Healthy competition, in which learners try to outperform other trainees, can go a long way toward getting lessons to stick. For example, you can give a quiz and keep score on a leaderboard until someone wins.

Sticky Training

Evaluating training programs can boil down to one simple but somewhat profound question: Why are you spending time and money on training if nothing changes?

There are many ways to get a better return on investment (ROI) from training. You can revise your materials, hire more energetic trainers, send trainees off to a weekend retreat, and take other steps. All good ideas, but these are ultimately unlikely to provide a big payback unless you make sure that you are delivering training that sticks.

About the Author:

Brannon Dreher is a client engagement manager at Tortal Training. In the learning and development space, Dreher provides blended learning solutions for companies based on need and to create customized learning solutions for the clients, while increasing the effectiveness of a company’s human capital. He brings a continual learning focus and communication skills to produce quantifiable results. For more information, contact: Brannon Dreher,

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