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4 Tips for Increasing Employee Learning Retention

Tuesday April 10th 2018

Learning and recalling new information is critical to your professional success. However, this must be a conscious effort, according to Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who is famous for creating  the forgetting curve, which demonstrates the rates at which new information is forgotten.

Reinforcing What’s Been Learned

Ebbinghaus discovered that in a matter of weeks, sometimes in just a matter of days, individuals tend to forget what they’ve recently learned. How effectively the memory is at recalling new information is dependent on other factors, such as whether the information is tested, or whether there are training or other activities that would force the memory to recall it. By understanding these limitations when you design your e-learning courses, you’re more likely to include activities and reflections that reinforce e-learning and improve outcomes.

Here are 4 ways teams can plan and execute e-learning initiatives to increase employee engagement and overall learning:

Study Smarter, Not Harder

Employee engagement and learning teams should take a page from college handbooks to help employees better understand and put their e-learning to use. A study by Stanford researchers, which was published in Psychological Science, found that students can do better on tests by not studying harder, but instead, studying smarter.

In the study, college students who were generally considered smart spent a significant amount of time reading and re-reading textbooks and completing homework assignments, but this effort was not reflected in their test scores and overall grades. However, when these students participated in a self-reflective exercise, their scores and grades improved. The students went through this 4-step process:

  • They thought about the format of the upcoming exam
  • They made a conscious decision to choose the best learning resources (whether that would be lecture notes, the actual textbook, meeting with the teacher, etc.)
  • They determined how each learning resource they chose would help them learn
  • They took time to schedule when and how each resource would be used

The students’ scores improved by 3.45 points (on average) during the first study and 4.65 points during the second study. According to the authors, it’s the actual steps that the students took to determine the effectiveness of each resource/process that made the difference. Strategic thinking and foresight helped them to use their time more efficiently and effectively.

The researchers also thought that this type of strategic thinking could be applied to any type of scenario. For example, they noted that employees who want to learn new work-related skills should also reflect on which method of learning information and mastering skills is most effective. When employees engage in strategic metacognition (thinking about their thinking) and identify ways they can use their learning in the workplace, they are more likely to retain that knowledge and engage in their day-to-day activities.

Companies should build their e-learning tools to reflect the best practices outlined by the Stanford study. Each module should begin and end with exercises that frame the learning according to how the employees will use the information in their jobs. This type of strategic framing directly correlates the e-learning courses with the employee’s day to day, giving the employees a concrete and familiar hook on which they can hang their new learning.

Identify Learning Strengths

Learning styles also affect our ability to retain information. Because workplaces are made up of many individuals with different learning styles, e-learning courses should reflect the population by providing opportunities for learning that cater to different strengths

For example, visual learners are best served by taking written notes and watching demonstration videos that guide the learner step-by-step through processes. On the other hand, auditory learners may find listening to lectures or presentations and recording verbal answers to be more helpful. Kinesthetic learners need to take some sort of action associated with learning to retain the material, so set up discussion groups and activities among learning groups to ensure that material sticks.

By planning your e-learning courses to include many different types of interactions and learning methods, the initiative has a higher probability of success from the beginning. And as an added bonus,

Sleep On It

Regardless of learning style, all learners (and employees!) can benefit from a good night’s sleep. Researchers at Harvard have found that when you dream, your mind restarts the learning process. Any recently-learned material is more likely to be embedded in your memory. Even a nap can help to boost your mind’s retention process. Perhaps this is an argument for in-office nap pods?

When designing e-learning courses for employees, set the employees up for maximum success by scheduling the learning over the course of several days and weeks. Some employees will want to speed through the course all in a single day, but that doesn’t help their retention. Remind learners to take their time working through modules and schedule follow-up lessons and activities in the days and weeks after a lesson to reinforce learning.

Test and Iterate

To really track outcomes and learn where e-learning tools are most efficient, companies who invest in e-learning software should employ project management tools to track employee progress. These tools will give team leads insight into where learners get stuck in bottlenecks, how much time employees spend on each task, and keep everyone on schedule. Notifications and alerts remind team leads to follow up with surveys, further learning, and check-ins to see how employees are using their new knowledge.

Every learner is different, so try out a bunch of different ways to improve your e-learning courses to keep employees engaged and choose what works best for your team. By asking employees to reflect on their learning, engage in lots of different types of activities, and build good learning habits, teams will gather better returns from their el-earning initiatives.

Terri Williams is a writer for She has covered business and tech topics for a variety of clients, including The Economist Careers Network, Intuit Small Business Blog, Investopedia, The Houston Chronicle, Daily News Energy, and Homeland Preparedness News. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.

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