Fostering retention is one of the biggest challenges in learning and development. Research shows that retention decays exponentially over time, with one prominent researcher, Hermann Ebbinghaus, finding that when a learner takes in new information:

  • Only 50% is retained after one hour
  • Only 33% is retained after one day
  • Only 25% is retained after one week

The challenge then becomes, how do we: A) reduce forgetting and increase retention; and B) ensure that the most important information is included in the percent that is retained?

There are a number of techniques for addressing this:

  • Incorporate more "active engagement"
  • Incorporate repetition and refreshment
    • Repeated exposure and application aid in retention
    • Refreshment trainings, and other refreshment opportunities (e.g., refresher exercises, worksheets and resources), can reset retention at 100% (or closer to it)
  • Prioritize "operative knowledge" — i.e., information that directly relates to what you're training learners to do — and avoid information overload
    • Ensure learning is relevant and well-paced
    • Consider compartmentalizing less relevant information in optional sections or materials
  • Incorporate a "pre-test" (i.e., a test at the beginning of a learning product, intervention or module)
    • Pre-tests can prime learners to absorb information
    • Pre-tests can help identify the most important information, worthy of retention
    • When used to dispel common misconceptions, pre-tests can further promote engagement (and thus retention) by getting learner's excited to learn what they and others have been getting wrong
  • Provide quick reference materials that help users access and apply key information when it's needed
  • Facilitate multi-channel connections
    • Why do instructors include images in their PowerPoint slides and advertisers deploy catchy buzzwords and jingles? Because it gives their audience something else memorable, connected to the information they're relaying, so that recall of the image, buzzword or jingle can lead to recall of the information
  • Make learning enjoyable!
    • Incorporating active engagement naturally helps with this, but also consider simple things that can make learning more fun, like incorporating humor, pop culture and learners' interests