The Brain Science that Drives Corporate “Training for Retention”

Companies Mentioned: Axonify, Degreed, EdCast, Fivel, Grovo, Pathgather, Percipio, and Qstream

A recent study by Deloitte suggests that the #1 problem facing companies revolves around employee engagement, turnover, and the corporate culture, with 87% of companies rating these as important imperatives, and 50% rating them as urgent. Learning may be the key, with companies utilizing effective Learning & Development (L&D) environments showing higher levels of engagement, reduced turnover, and positive corporate cultures.

The operative term here is “effective” L&D. Stale textbook and slide show training is obsolete and ineffective. Effective learning content is compelling and engaging, is available in multiple media (text, video, audio), and is available 24/7 on multiple platforms (mobile, tablet, laptop, desktop). Effective learning content is readily available in short bursts to address a specific question without disrupting the workflow, or as a series of short bursts for a deeper dive. Many Learning Management Systems (LMS) are embracing these properties and are showing improvements in initial learning and proficiency.

The Forgetting Curve

Although proficiency of initial learning is important, the ultimate goal of all training is long-term retention and mastery. It does no good to train to perfection today, only to have that information forgotten tomorrow. Unfortunately, the brain is “hardwired” to forget, and thus long-term retention is a challenge. This involves constructing and delivering the training content in a way that “trains for retention”. A focus on long-term retention is still absent in many LMS systems.

Sample Forgetting Curve
Sample Forgetting Curve

In the late 1800s, the memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the “forgetting curve”. Since then this effect has been replicated numerous times across a broad range of training materials. A typical forgetting curve is represented in the figure. The y-axis denotes the percentage of trained information that is retained and the x-axis denotes time. The blue dot in the upper left denotes the initial learning and in this example, all of the trained information was perfectly learned (100%). The red curve is the forgetting curve. Notice that forgetting is rapid with only 40% of the information retained 1 day after training, and only 15% retained 1 week after training. Although the magnitude and rate of forgetting differs across individuals and content, the trajectory is always down with less information being retained over time.

Brain Science of Memory Retention

Schematic Brain Figure highlighting hippocampus and prefrontal cortex
Schematic Brain Figure

From a brain science perspective (see schematic brain figure), when you first study and begin to learn information, you are using short-term (working) memory and attention to process the information. This processing recruits the prefrontal cortex with the goal of building a memory representation and transferring this representation (through repetition) into long-term memory store. Long-term memory resides in the hippocampus and other medial temporal lobe structures. During initial learning these memory traces are strong, but they are highly susceptible to weakening (forgetting) over time. The goal of retention training is to reduce the rate of forgetting.

Overcoming Forgetting by Training for Retention

The key to reducing the magnitude and rate of forgetting is to incorporate periodic (spaced) testing and retention training. The approach is to periodically test the learner on their knowledge of the relevant subject matter. Knowledge that is poorly retained should be identified, and this information should be retrained. New information should also be introduced to build the learner’s knowledge base. With this approach you know that the prior knowledge is well represented. If that prior knowledge is poorly represented, then it is fruitless to introduce new material because there will be no scaffolding upon which to build, and learning will be ineffective. This testing procedure opens the door to personalized L&D methodologies that will ultimately be developed.

To visualize this process, consider the figure below.

Iterative Targeted Retention
Iterative Targeted Retention

The blue dot in the upper left corner denotes the initial learning of 100%. The forgetting curve is in red. If the learner is tested a few days following initial training, and is retrained on the information that they forgot (as denoted by the blue starburst labeled “1st test and targeted retraining”) they are back to 100%. At this point new information can also be introduced that builds upon the prior knowledge. As this process is repeated a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th time, less and less information must be retrained, and the forgetting rate gets shallower. The forgetting curve is shallower because testing and targeted retraining stimulates long-term memory storage in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes and begins to insulate these memories from forgetting.

Corporate “Training for Retention”

Based on a review of the psychological and brain science the way forward is clear. Two training methods have been shown to enhance retention and should be incorporated into current and future L&D platforms.

Brief Bursts of Training (microlearning): The first method that is recommended is to utilize brief bursts of compelling and engaging content that focus on a specific topic. This is often referred to as microlearning. Brief bursts of training increase the odds that attentional processes will remain engaged, and the learner’s attention span will not be exceeded. Brief bursts are not enough though. The content must be compelling and engaging. The goal is to make learning fun and to induce positive affect during the process. This will enhance initial learning and will speed the transition to long-term memory.

Spaced Training: The second method that is recommended is to use spaced training. The idea is to separate brief burst of learning in time. Spacing is not enough though. Previously learned information should be tested and poorly retained information should be retrained. New information that builds upon the old information should be introduced at this point so that knowledge gaps are minimized. Spaced training provides the time for memory consolidation in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes and experiential application and learning on the job.

Corporate Training Platforms

Based on my conversations and research in the sector, I have identified a number of companies that embrace the importance of brief burst of compelling content (microlearning), spaced training or both. These include:

  • Axonify (microlearning; spaced training): Axonify emphasizes personalization in content and learning trajectories, as well as the development of compelling and engaging content and learning environments.
  • Degreed (microlearning): Degreed curates content from multiple sources and develops personalized learning trajectories.
  • EdCast (microlearning; spaced training): EdCast markets themselves as the “Netflix” of learning. The offering is heavy in AI with AI driving personalization in content and programs of learning.
  • Fivel (microlearning; spaced training): Fivel’s offering is grounded firmly in the psychological and brain science of learning and retention. This shows in the content creation and delivery.
  • Grovo (microlearning; spaced training): Grovo is grounded in microlearning. The offering embraces the fact that short bursts of training are not enough, and instead focus on compelling content and performance testing.
  • PathGather (microlearning): PathGather emphasizes personalization in learning paths, as well as the social aspects of learning. This includes encouraging the development of new skills and recognition when these goals achieved.
  • Qstream (microlearning and spaced training): Qstream is focused primarily on sales enablement. The efficacy of this offering is supported by a large body of its own scientific research.
  • Skillsoft Percipio (microlearning and spaced training): Percipio emphasizes microlearning, but also acknowledges that some skills require a deeper dive. In these microlearning situations, microlearning modules are combined. Nearly all content is available through multiple media (reading, watching, listening).

This sector is growing rapidly and more companies are acknowledging the importance of retention training. I am always interested in speaking with companies with strong microlearning and spaced training capabilities, or with companies who would like to incorporate these methods into their existing platform. To get in touch and speak about your efforts in training for retention, please email me at todd@amalgaminsights.com

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