Getting Learning to Stick

By Ashley Topuschak, SARC HR Consultant

Increasingly organizations are investing money in training and professional development for their employees. This has value for many reasons. Organizations need to ensure their employees are staying current and maintaining or developing skills that align with strategic directions and plans. Employees typically place a high value on access to training and development opportunities. Having solid offerings in place can set employers apart in recruitment as part of the employee value proposition and also works to retain employees. 

So now what can organizations and individuals do to get the most out of this valuable investment in training and employees?  We can all likely recount a time when we have gone to training and if you asked a year later what we learned, the answers would be fuzzy. This doesn’t mean lack of interest or motivation. It comes down to brain science and the forgetting curve hypothesized by a German psychologist named Herman Ebbinghaus.  Luckily, we can take steps to address this curve.  Think now of a time when you did retain knowledge and applied it a year after training.   What made it stick for you? There’s likely a variety of factors involved. Here’s some ideas to try out with your own next learning event and with your employees.

Pre-Training Activities

1. Learning goals and outcomes – Know before you go to training what the learning goals and outcomes of the particular course are. These are the descriptions of what the learner should know and be able to do as a result of taking the course. Based on these take the time to identify your own personal learning goals and outcomes. 

For managers, use a collaborative process with employees to identify their personal goals.   Have a discussion about the work environment and how the training will fit in the actual work setting and if any barriers are expected how they could be addressed. This is also an ideal time for managers to link the training back to the organizational strategic plan.

In instances when training is being taken to address a specific performance gap, the manager can set clear expectations about applying training back in the workplace.   

2. Training pre-work – Does the training provider have any pre-work for you to do?  If so, make sure to put the time in to complete it as brain science tells us this is an effective tool.  Putting time in to read, comprehend and develop initial reactions to materials in advance of a course prepares learners to retain materials.  

Even if the provider doesn’t have specific pre-work, take five minutes to think about and write down some answers to the questions: What do you already know about the topic?  What burning questions do you have about the content?  Can you identify times when you have already applied the content or skills in your lived experience?  For example, if you are attending a session about managing conflict think about when did you last encounter conflict at work and what did you do?

During Training

1. Learning buddy – Find someone that you connect with at training and who you can continue to connect with after the training.  This is a great way to hold yourself accountable and to continue to ask questions about what you learned together.  Depending on the content it can be better to have a learning buddy within your own organization or from another organization.

2. Learning triggers – Challenge yourself to identify learning triggers for new skills or knowledge.  These are the practical applications or the when, what, how and why of actually using what you are learning.   What makes you remember best?  For some people it is knowing “the why” behind concepts.   For others it might be visualizing a work scenario in which they can apply the skill.

Post-Training Activities

1. Revisit the pre-work – Check back on your learning goals and outcomes to see if the course met the goals.  If not, does a new learning plan need to be put in place?  Most likely it’s a matter of now taking the time to apply the learning on the job. 

2. Develop a short and long-term application plan – Set goals for ways that you will apply the learning in the first week, the first month and then monthly after that.   Consider again any barriers to application that may arise and how to address them.  The plan is about reinforcing and building skills.  The more quickly and the more often you use new skills the more likely you will be to retain them.

Keep in mind that the application plan varies depending on what the expectations are as does the evaluation of the application.  For safety or compliance practices, the expectations will be clear for immediate application.  It is not as clear if the training relates to new ways of behaving and applying soft skills.  These types of skills typically take longer to incorporate and will need to be reinforced both organizationally and at the individual level. 

To identify ways for reinforcing learning, consider what learning style and approach fits with your employees and the training content.  You can get creative and here are some options to consider:

  • Take 10 minutes at team meetings to discuss content and how employees are applying it.
  • Provide employees with a training notebook to write down those “aha” moments that happen down the road and share with you at your individual check-in meetings.
  • Invite employees to take turns presenting a Coles Notes version of small portions of the training to colleagues.  Revisit the full training content this way throughout the year.
  • Challenge employees to identify 3 things they will stop, start and continue based on what they have learned.
  • Encourage employees to connect with their learning buddies and reflect on content.

3. Recognize employees – Managers have a big role in recognizing employees for applying their training on the job and demonstrating new behaviours.  This rewards and reinforces the value of the training.

4. Integrate into employee plans – For organizations that have work and learning plans, be sure to incorporate the news skills into the work/performance plan adjustments or for the following year’s plan.  Then again a new learning plan is identified and the process starts all over.

The time spent on these practices is worth it and you’ll see greater rewards with a return on your training investment.

Do you have any of your own ideas that have worked well? We’d love to hear them.


Please Note: The included information is for reference only, and SARC and its Members, their employers, officers, and Directors assume and accept no liability for any consequences arising from the use, non-use, accuracy, or legal compliance of any of the information, tools, or resources provided.

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