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Hijack Learning Retention Rates by Teaching Learners to Fish

Posted on June 27, 2017 at 10:20 AM

by Shane Lueck

It’s time to face the facts; traditional training is broken. Traditional training methods might provide very short-term performance gains, but knowledge retention is minimal, leading to a skills gap.

It’s no secret that many corporate training programs aren’t cutting it these days. They are often boring, ineffective, and treat training as a one-off event instead of a process. Companies build self-paced eLearning modules or put everyone in a classroom for a day and turn on the fire hose of conceptual information.

This often results in a roller coaster effect: temporary improvements in performance that are encouraging but are almost always followed by plateaus (or worse, declines) that eventually drop off again. It’s clear from learning retention rates that current training methods are not producing desired results:

  • Within one hour, people will have forgotten 50 percent of what they have learned
  • Within 24 hours, they will have forgotten 70 percent of new information
  • Within a week, 90 percent of information is lost

Retention rates are dismal, and people leave feeling mentally exhausted and disinterested. That’s not enough for continuous improvement. We can agree that almost everyone wants to learn new things and improve, yet people despise going through training. Why is that? Simply put, most corporate training programs are not designed to fit how people actually learn.

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Teach Learners to Fish, Don’t Just Give Them a Fish

The 70/20/10 Model states that 70 percent of adult learning takes place by doing (or while on the job), 20 percent takes place while learning from others, and only 10 percent takes place in a formalized setting or event. Why, then, do we keep placing so much effort and attention on that 10 percent?

In order to shift our focus toward that massive 70 percent chunk of the pie, we need to stop giving learners the answers and start making them “do” by using the learning experience to cultivate learners’ independent problem-solving abilities.

At this point, who hasn’t heard the proverb, "If you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime"? Applying this proverb to learning and development, we have two choices: either give learners a fish, or teach them how to fish.

But what does that mean? By giving learners a fish, we’re providing information that we believe to be essential, instead of training learners how to access that information using resources while on the job. The approach of giving learners a fish can take the form of a lecture, PowerPoint, or eLearning module, creating a passive learning environment. Learning and development professionals recognize this as a "one and done" strategy, where the information is provided to learners without reinforcement or support once they are on the job.

This passive engagement with the material results in learners who are not taught to solve problems independently or practice critical thinking skills. On the other hand, teaching learners to fish is a learner-centered approach, forcing learning professionals to put considerable thought into the desired tools and skills required by learners to successfully grow into their on-the-job performance.

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7 Steps to Fishing Prowess

1. Focus on the necessary skills

What is the one takeaway learners should remember a week after training? How about six months later? What should they be able to do a year into the job that can be measured?

By focusing on simple, overarching objectives and prioritizing the information to be shared, the training becomes more purposeful. Focusing the course objective on practical skill development makes the outcome even more tangible and relevant for use on the job, which balances manager expectations of performance.

2. Prioritize active over passive learning

This can be easier said than done, but whenever possible, find a way to teach learners the resources to use to find answers instead of telling them the information right off the bat. Focus on the location of the resources and how to recognize scenarios in which those resources should be used.

This might involve using scenarios, games, or role playing to help learners understand how resources are applicable in their professional lives. This also provides a great opportunity for learners to relate to content with their own lived experiences. Immersing learners in an instructional strategy encouraging them to find answers instead of memorizing them results in a resourceful workforce that is trained to solve problems.

3. Promote critical thinking

Job postings always call for critical thinking skills, but trainings usually counteract that. To overcome this, facilitators should make a conscious effort to talk less, listen more, and ask challenging questions.

Next time a learner gets stuck in a game, simulation, or other learning activity, fight the instinct to proivde the answer. Allowing the learner to persist on their own encourages them to think through problems independently or seek out their peers in the room for assistance. Developing this independent problem-solving behavior in training sets the tone for how they are expected to behave on the job.

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4. Provide quick reference guides

If the training is focused on skill development (which it should be…see number one above), why bother bogging the learner down in dozens of pages worth of handouts listing the details of each point, policy, or procedure covered. Handouts can be condensed to just a few pages, describing when and where to find the resources needed on the job.

Personal challenge: Can you condense it down to just one page? Maybe provide one key point in bold at the top followed by some helpful tips. The rest of the page can include reminders for how to locate the resources discussed in training, so that they'll know how to start the problem-solving process once they are back on the job.

5. Debrief

It's essential to review what was learned during the training session. The debrief is a crucial step to critical thinking. Identify one topic or goal to focus the discussion, such as brainstorming creative solutions to possible problems encountered while on the job, using information gained in the training.

Again, listen more than talk, and prepare thought-provoking questions in advance.

6. Pay attention to time

Humans have varying attention spans (like you didn’t know that already!), and lectures containing considerable amounts of detail become lengthy, challenging learners’ memories.

By restructuring a course to focus on practical skill development and recognizing when to use those skills, the trainings often become shorter, and the focused activities within this condensed course help with learning retention and application on the job.

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7. Support long-term independent learning

Encourage learners to use coworkers, LinkedIn groups, blogs, or other social media to create another layer of support continuing beyond the training session. An organization could also invest in an internal social networking platform (operating as an interactive discussion board of some kind for employees) to collaboratively solve challenges they face day to day.

The Right Support

It goes without saying that we all want learners to succeed. By teaching learners how to fish, (which is to say teaching them how to use a performance support tool to find information they’ll inevitably forget during training), they’ll be fed for a lifetime.

To combat dismal retention rates, start creating learning programs that align with how people actually learn, through first-hand experience and interacting with their peers. Sure, there’s still a time and place for formal training events, but give them an overhaul. Have them practice and work together to solve real problems they’ll face once they leave the learning environment.

When learning is relevant and practical, learners are more attentive and motivated, and they remember more, which makes them more likely to transfer skills from the classroom to the workplace. Using these strategies can aid in the development of self-sufficient problem solvers, providing every learner the support they need to thrive on the job.

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Shane Lueck

Having previously worked with Dashe as an independent consultant, Shane officially joined the team in 2017. He comes from an award-winning background in the magazine world, bringing his editorial and marketing knowledge to the office. Shane spent time studying international leadership in Cape Town, South Africa, fueling his passion for connecting people from various backgrounds to create a unique and high-level product. Shane received his M.A. in multicultural teaching and learning from the University of Minnesota, where he worked with the Office for Equity and Diversity’s education initiatives to create workshops designed to improve campus climate. When he’s not creating content, Shane gives into his wanderlust and spends time with his dog, Armani.

Instructional Design, Learning Retention, Formal Learning, 70:20:10, Performance Support, Behavior Change, Corporate Learning