While at the dentist last week, I was asked the usual questions, including, "Have you been flossing regularly?" This question triggered a memory of the dentist from over ten years ago. While admitting to the dentist that I often intended to floss, but rarely carried out my intention, she said:
"Flossing is really important to having healthy teeth. The food you eat will often get stuck between your teeth and if it remains there, it eventually turns into plaque which causes cavities. Think of the food as building little houses between your teeth. Your flossing acts as a tornado, swooping in to tear up the houses and protect your teeth from decay."
In over twenty years of going to the dentist, that's the only advice I remember. With what I now understand about learning, it's not surprising that I haven't forgotten the flossing advice. While it's great I remembered the importance of flossing, it's unfortunate to think about how much good advice I've been given only to end up forgetting it because it wasn't delivered in an effective manner.
There is often an unnecessary gap between learning and retention when it comes time to implement. School might be partly at fault for this since it accustoms people to being flooded with information without knowing what or why they needed to know it.
The following five tips will help you save money and time from being invested in wasteful training.
1. Narrow the time from learning to execution
The sooner you translate learning into action the easier it will be to remember what you learned. I know this from personal experience, going through all the videos in a course only to get to the point where I need to implement, but I’ve already forgotten how to take the first step. The brain takes in so much information each day; we can only remember what forms a strong impression on our mind. The sooner you apply what you've learned, the easier it will be to recall in the future.
This is why performance support is such a powerful tool. It eliminates the retention gap, but not requiring information to be remembered since it can be utilized immediately.
2. Spaced repetition
A key to learning any new skill is spaced repetition, meaning it's better to practice ten minutes a day than it is to practice one hour a week. Repetition is necessary for developing a strong memory of how to perform any skill. Spaced repetition is similar to how watering a plant works, it's best to spread out the watering instead of flooding the plant all at once. There are limits to what the brain can process at once.
"Researchers have found that memory follows a decay curve: new concepts need to be reinforced regularly, but the longer you’ve known a concept, the less regularly you need to review it to maintain accurate recall. Spaced repetition and reinforcement is a memorization technique that helps you systematically review important concepts and information on a regular basis. Ideas that are difficult to remember are reviewed often, while easier and older concepts are reviewed less often." - Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours
“Much like concrete, memory takes an almost ridiculous amount of time to settle into its permanent form.” – John Medina, Brain Rules
3. Understand the “why” behind learning
If I told you how to defend yourself from an alligator attack, you might find it interesting, but forget the information fairly shortly. If I told you the same information ten minutes before you were about to go on a hike where someone had just been attacked by an alligator, you’d never forget the information because your life might be at stake if you did.
Without a "why" people are often unmotivated or unable to focus on what they need to know. Just being given training doesn't inspire the learner to soak up the information. If they learn that by completing a course they'll be able to perform their job more effectively, which strongly relates to happiness at work, they’ll be more motivated to pay attention to the training and perform well.
People innately crave reasons for doing things, as any parent of a small child is more than aware. Providing a reason for the learning that relates to the business goals of the individual and the organization will lead to much more effective learning and happier employees.
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. A failure to communicate why creates nothing but stress or doubt.” – Simon Sinek, Start With Why
4. Make learning visual
One of the reasons I've been able to remember the explanation from the dentist is that she provided a "why" (cavities) but also because she made her explanation visual. Picturing a tornado tearing through tiny houses inside my mouth formed a strong impression in my mind.
The brain has a much easier time remembering visuals than sounds or words. By visual, I’m referring to anything that creates a strong mental image in the mind. Effective corporate learning utilizes visuals to make the information easier to understand and remember.
“Images drive the emotions as well as the intellect." - Steven Pinker, Cognitive scientist
“Humans excel at visual imagery. Our brains evolved this ability to create an internal mental picture or model of the world in which we can rehearse forthcoming actions, without the risks or penalties of doing them in the real world.” - V. S. Ramachandran, Neuroscientist
"The tendency is so pervasive that, even when we read, most of us try to visualize what the text is telling us. “Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap,” George Bernard Shaw was fond of saying. These days, there is a lot of brain science technology to back him up." - John Medina, Brain Rules
5. Provide a better tool
Though it didn't happen immediately, I now floss daily. For most of my life I came to believe flossing was a nearly impossible habit to adopt. It turns out I just didn't consider using a better tool for the job. I ditched the standard floss for a tool shaped much like a tooth brush, but with a horseshoe shaped flossing head. This converted flossing from a chore into something almost effortless.
When it comes to corporate learning, providing a knowledge dump is an easy solution, but far from an effective one. The best way to eliminate the retention gap and improve employee productivity is often through the use of a performance support tool which provides learning in the moment of need. Paradoxically, not needing to remember information until it's needed makes it easier to remember because the learning is immediately connected to purposeful action.
I was able to adopt the habit of flossing by switching to a new tool, thus making flossing easy to do. Effective corporate learning happens when the content is presented in a way that makes it as easy as possible to learn, comprehend, and implement.
Learning isn't about remembering more information, but having the right information at the right time.