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5 Ways to Create Greater Learner Retention

Wednesday, June 12, 2019
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Retention is defined as “the continued possession, use, or control of something”; “the fact of keeping something in one’s memory”; and “the action of absorbing and continuing to hold a substance.” But given the pace of change in business and competing demands for learners’ attention, how do facilitators help their participants retain what is shared in a training course?

It’s about conscious creation, whether facilitating an e-learning or in-person course.

Create a WIIFM hook.

Setting the stage for a “what’s in it for me?” mentality in participants can be started well before a training course begins. A strong communication plan can improve participants’ understanding of what they have to gain from the course and help them make the connection about why they should care about the event. As David Smith writes in his ATD blog post, “To Engage the Modern Learner, Start With Why," consider the questions, “Why will this training course change what you do in your job role? Why should you want to attend and pay attention? Why is the pre-work necessary?”

Create a series of touchpoints.

In their TD article “R.A.C.E. to the Training Finish Line,” Krista Singleton and Melissa Winebarger suggest that L&D professionals start their connection with participants before the training course and continue reaching out after the event. Communicating information ahead of time can prevent a learner from feeling frustrated, such as “… walking into a learning event without knowing key concepts, program expectations, course length, level of difficulty, and what is required for completion.”

Similarly, after the course or—using the authors’ analogy of a race—the post-race phase, “Designers should incorporate spaced learning and repetition to plan activities afterward that continue to enable learners to apply newly gained skills to keep them sharp.”

Create applicable connections.

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When learning is based on hands-on development, such as computer software, ATD Education Facilitator Nikki O’Keeffe recommends including application projects for completion after the event. If, for example, the training event covered the Articulate Storyline e-learning authoring tool, she may suggest participants choose a specific project—professional or personal—to work on to retain their skills. O’Keeffe then follows up with participants to see how the projects are progressing.

Create a support network.

Course attendees won’t necessarily have a support network to help them work through any challenges they have with the content after the training course. O’Keeffe says facilitators can become that network, either connecting course attendees to others through discussion boards or LinkedIn groups or helping learners troubleshoot a snag when they encounter it.

Another tool O’Keeffe uses is start, keep, stop. She asks attendees what they’re going to start to do, keep doing, and stop doing as a result of what they’ve learned during the class. Participants email O’Keeffe privately, and she follows up with them at a later point to remind them of what they have committed to do (or not do).

Create a culture of accountability.

All too often, employees may attend a training course—in-person or online—and feel they’ve “checked off the box.” This mindset might even come from leaders and managers. Compliance training is a good example: When talent development professionals get buy-in from managers and leaders about the importance of learning, it can help create a culture of accountability.

O’Keeffe explains that facilitators can partner with participants’ managers or mentors to make sure the content is being revisited after the training event. She might offer questions that managers can periodically ask their direct reports to refresh the learning and make sure the skills acquired are being used.

In addition to being held accountable by managers and higher-ups, individual employees can hold themselves responsible or work with a peer. For the former, in her TD at Work issue “The Missing Link in Learning: Transfer,” Emma Weber recommends that learners sign a learning agreement that creates a tangible reminder of what they have agreed to do with respect to the training and development.

In his ATD 2019 keynote address, Seth Godin noted that education is something that is done to us; but “learning is something we choose to do, and we do it happily.” Facilitators can work with participants not only to learn happily, but also to create learning retention.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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