What happens after employees attend a learning intervention? How is this then translated back into the workplace? In most companies it’s not; we consider how to keep the learning alive after a programme, and why that’s often the most important part of the process.
Despite its amazing powers and complexity, when it comes to learning, there is only so much that the human brain can handle. The latest developments in neuroscience are helping us understand the process that occurs when we learn, and this is consequently helping to inform the way we develop and deliver learning. But while efforts are being made to ensure the actual learning events are as impactful and memorable as they can be, this doesn’t alter the fact that the human brain has a predisposition for discarding information it doesn’t deem valuable. Despite our new insight into the neuroscience of learning, there remains a persistent ‘forgetting curve’ that continues to undermine the durability of what we learn. research has consistently shown that there is a steady decline in what we can recall after attending a course or programme, and that after as little as a week only around 25% of information is remembered.
It’s clear that this is far from an ideal situation and presents a challenge for both the individual and the business; not being able to recall the detail of what was learnt during a programme means employees will not be able to progress and develop competence in their role in an efficient way. This is likely to hinder not only their performance in the short term, but also their opportunities for progression and promotion. As a result this then reduces the positive impact on outcomes for the business, potentially delaying the growth of the organisation as a whole; and from a purely financial perspective, when learning is lost so rapidly it is a significant waste of investment, and very few organisations can afford this.
However, while the challenges have been highlighted numerous times, there remains uncertainty about how to address them. It is often assumed that there isn’t anything that can be done, and the forgetting curve is simply noted as inevitability. But that needn’t be the case as research has shown that this decline can be mitigated with the right intervention; offering targeted support and outlets to utilise the learning is key in retaining the information acquired, and typically this is where we fall short. A lot of emphasis is placed on ensuring the content during the course or programme is sufficient, and a similar degree of effort is made to maximise the effectiveness of the actual event, for example presenting it in an engaging way and accommodating a wide range of ‘learning styles’, but it is the post- event interventions that are often neglected.
In terms of professional development, individuals often leave a session feeling abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm for what they’ve learnt, but then return to their place of work and have no opportunity to apply their new skill, or are unsure about how to develop further, and this is where the forgetting curve commences its decline. While it’s inevitable that some information will be lost over time, there are a number of solutions to help minimise this: employees to share what they learnt during a programme is not only an excellent way to help the individual embed this information more effectively, it also gives others an opportunity to learn something new as well, and potentially make improvements within the business. This could be achieved via team debriefs, lunch and learns or an online community forum where learning is actively shared and consumed.
Although individuals should be willing to take accountability for their own progression and development, in a lot of cases the challenge is that they simply don’t know where to go in order to follow up. With the wealth of information and choice now available across a wide range of media, knowing what the best avenue is to ‘top-up’ learning, can be difficult. Providing clear direction on what the next steps are, and actively prompting people to take them is very beneficial to promote long-term learning and retention. Instead of having to decide for themselves where to turn, having the guidance of those with the specialist knowledge will not only ensure they make the best decisions on how to follow up, but will also help motivate them to do it.
In instances where direction is provided, many people will still struggle to follow up on their learning post-event, as it is often not viewed as ‘high priority’ compared with existing demands. As a result, despite the best will in the world, the forgetting curve will quickly set in, and people may even forget what they wanted to follow
up on. This is where effective learning prompts can be extremely useful; even a brief follow-up email to remind individuals of what they learnt, and some resources they can use to continue their development can have a huge impact on driving the learning forward and pausing the forgetting curve. These prompts may include additional resources, or simply a reminder of what was covered in the session. However for maximum impact, research suggests that actually testing the recall of information is most effective; depending on the content and type of information being recalled, even something as simple as a quiz about the key aspects of the topic can boost future recall as much as 80%.
The importance of time
In addition to not knowing where to turn, not having time they can dedicate to follow up on their learning is a real challenge for many and this is where the business can have a big impact with minimal effort. By actively encouraging individuals to take time for their learning post-event, you can facilitate engagement with any additional learning resources being provided, helping to maintain the momentum long term. Employees will often feel they are not entitled to take extra time at work to ‘top-up’ their knowledge, so clearly demonstrating your commitment to ‘in work learning’ is essential in order to support longer term impact of learning and is also a powerful way to boost engagement.
The prevalence of the status quo can be a huge detriment to learning; rarely will an individual come back from a learning event and be able to instigate any real change immediately, instantly derailing the momentum built. In many instances there may be a notable lack of interest from those who didn’t attend the learning event, and rather than feeling empowered to use their new knowledge, an individual may internalise it for fear of disrupting the status quo. However the knowledge acquired could have a hugely positive influence on the working practices of a team or department, and this is where knowledge sharing so important.
related to the practice of knowledge sharing is the need for effective mentoring post-
learning. As mentioned above, often individuals who have been equipped with new skills
or knowledge don’t really understand how they can be put to use in the workplace. This means that many people simply don’t, but if time, money and effort have been invested in up-skilling an employee in a certain area, then it is vital that they are supported in using this in some form, and mentoring is an excellent way to facilitate this in a more intensive way. Whether the mentoring is related to the actual skill learnt, or the wider evelopment needs of the individual (typically incorporating the new skill), it’s an immensely powerful way of creating a sense of accountability for the individual, and helps ensure the business is able to reap the benefits of having highly skilled employees on staff.
We all know how important it is to build and maintain momentum after instigating a change, whether this be learning a new skill at work or making changes in our personal life, but all too often we forget to plan ahead for the post-event phase, and before we know it our enthusiasm has flat-lined. Finding ways to avoid this is essential in order to reap the benefits of our efforts, and when it comes to professional development, the answer comes down, in essence, to ‘use it or lose it’.