The Neuroscience of Corporate Retention Training

The Brain is Hardwired to Forget

High-quality Learning and Development solutions provide organizations with the competitive advantage that they need to address digital transformation in the rapidly changing workplace. These solutions allow effective upskilling and reskilling of employees, but also attract, and retain the best talent. Organizations recognize that it is more time and cost effective to develop talent from within, than to recruit, hire, and onboard external talent. In addition, research suggests that a commitment to developing existing talent for today and the future enhances employee satisfaction, engagement, and productivity, all the while reducing turnover; a win for employers and employees.

The goal of any L&D solution is to speed initial learning and to enhance long term retention. Although initial learning is important, the ultimate goal 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. We know this from 100 years of research. To meet this challenge L&D solutions must construct, design and deliver training content in a way that trains for retention.

From a neuroscience perspective (see schematic brain figure), when you first study and begin to learn 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 (aka forgetting) over time. The goal of retention training is to reduce the rate of forgetting.

There are three critical tools that organizations should look for in an L&D solution if you want to enhance retention.

  1. Periodic Testing: Effective L&D solutions 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, we are layering prior with new material, thus reinforcing that prior knowledge and allowing it to serve as the scaffolding upon which to build. This layering enhances retention. This testing procedure opens the door to personalized L&D methodologies that will ultimately be developed.

  2. Spaced Microlearning Training: Effective L&D solutions use spaced training that comes in brief bursts of compelling and engaging content that focus on a specific topic (also called microlearning). Brief bursts of training increase the odds that attentional processes will remain engaged, and the learner’s attention span will not be exceeded. These microlearning boosts should be spaced over time so that any forgetting that occurs can be addressed. Spaced training provides the time for memory consolidation in the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes and experiential application and learning on the job.
  3. Scenario-based Storytelling: Effective L&D solutions use scenario-based storytelling to convey information. Storytelling engages emotion and motivation centers in the brain that draw the learner in, and allow them to see themselves in the learning. Engaging emotion and motivation centers increases the effectiveness of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus and speeds initial learning while reducing the rate of forgetting.

By combining periodic testing with spaced microlearning and scenario-based storytelling, L&D solutions will “Train for Retention”. This approach will develop well-rounded employees who are ready to meet the needs of the modern workplace today, and the new challenges that await tomorrow.

If you share the challenge so many organizations face in struggling with the challenges of digital transformation and simply want L&D solutions that “stick”, look for solutions that embrace testing, spaced microlearning, and scenario-based storytelling.