eLearning Blog

Hijack Learning Retention Rates by Teaching Learners to Fish

by Shane Lueck

Are you confident that your training programs are successful? After employees leave the learning environment, how sure are you that their behavior will change? A 2015 survey found that only 12 percent of learners reported applying skills learned during training. That’s not a great return on investment to report to stakeholders.

Creating flashy courses that result in high engagement during training aren’t worth much if we aren’t supporting learners once they return to the job. Thinking of training as a one-off event instead of a process that ignores the limits of human memory. If true learning occurs when the brain converts information from working memory (where it’s stored just after training, which might result in temporary improvements in performance) to long-term memory, it stands to reason that we should put our best effort into supporting long-term memory formation.

Especially when you consider current learning retention rates, with obvious room for improvement:

  • Within one hour, people will have forgotten 50 percent of what they have learned
  • Within 24 hours, they will have forgotten 70 percent
  • Within a week, 90 percent is lost
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Teach Learners to Fish, Don’t Just Give Them a Fish

We've written before about the 70:20:10 Model, which states that 70 percent of adult learning comes from on-the-job experience, 20 percent takes place through social learning, and only 10 percent of learning is acquired through formal training. This leads to an important question to consider: if the majority of learning takes place while performing job duties, why do L&D professionals place so much effort into that 10 percent?

It’s our gut reaction to give people answers when they ask a question. In the fast-paced work environment, we think just blurting out an answer might save time, but that creates a dependency. In order to support the learner’s long-term growth, L&D professionals must work with learners to develop independent problem-solving skills.

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"?

But what does that mean for learning and development? Rephrasing that proverb to “give learners a fish,” what we’re doing is providing information. They ask a question, and we spout off an answer without helping them to develop independent problem-solving skills or demonstrating where they can locate the answer for themselves. The stereotypical college lecture hall is a great example of this: a large mass of students sitting, perhaps taking notes, as the instructor spews information (or hands out fish).

This is the "one and done.” Learners enter the learning environment, passively take in information, and leave with little, if any, reinforcement or support after the fact. 

Passive engagement with the material results in learners who aren’t able to apply what they’ve learned and are dependent on management to feed them answers back on the job. Shifting to “teaching learners to fish,” on the other hand, is a learner-centered approach. It puts the onus on learning and development professionals to critically assess the desired outcomes of training in order to help learners successfully grow into their on-the-job performance.

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5 Steps to Fishing Prowess

1. Focus on desired outcomes and pay attention to time
By focusing on simple, overarching objectives and prioritizing the information to be shared, training becomes more purposeful. The training becomes less of an information dump and learners are able to hone in on vital information relevant to their role, which in turn helps balance managerial expectations.

Prioritizing information and focusing on simple objectives will aid in helping you cut training time. Humans have varying attention spans (like you didn’t know that already!), and lectures containing considerable amounts of detail quickly become lengthy, drawn out experiences. Avoid learners doodling on their notepads by focusing the training’s attention and paying attention to time.

2. Prioritize active learning and critical thinking
It's easier said than done, but whenever possible avoid overwhelming learners with a firehose of information without offering them the chance to use what they’ve learned. As part of the practice, be sure to meet learners where they’re at and acclimate them to the resources your company uses to find solutions to situations they’re likely to encounter, rather than directly answering questions. Create active learning exercises by using scenarios, games, or role playing to aid in understanding the application of resources to a learner’s daily life.

The key is to encourage learners to find solutions themselves by applying critical thinking skills rather than memorizing (which could actually get in the way of learning). Next time a learner gets stuck, fight the instinct to provide the answer. We never learn how to ride a bike if our parents won’t let go, so encourage growth by allowing them room to learn. If we value independent workers with critical thinking skills, as job postings usually espouse, training should support those characteristics.

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3. Provide performance support
The benefits of developing performance support tools have been espoused for years, from improved learning outcomes to increased ROI, and yet most companies haven’t made much headway in implementing their own performance support systems.

Implementing performance support as part of your training program also feeds into step number two above. Providing learners with quick reference guides and refresher content after a training event allows them to develop independence. If all information is at their fingertips, learners will be able to go through the problem-solving process on their own once they are back on the job, without much assistance from you.

4. Incorporate reflection

It's essential to review what was learned during the training session, especially if a large component was experiential. Circling back to step two again, debriefing the day’s activities is a crucial step to critical thinking. Following the “what, so what, now what” reflection model forces learners to go beyond observations (what), to understand takeaways (so what) and finally begin thinking about how to apply what they learned (now what). It might be helpful to come prepared with some questions in advance to get the conversation started. The ultimate goal is for the facilitator to be watching a volleyball match, as learners bounce conversation back and forth rather than back at the facilitator after each answer.
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5. Foster and encourage social learning
The results are in, and social learning does wonders for employee confidence and collaboration. When learners interact through social media pages and groups, blogs, industry events, and other social learning tools, they are drawing on the information learned in training to teach their coworkers and peers.

There’s an old adage that you never know if you truly understand something until you have to teach it to someone else. Fostering an environment that encourages social learning allows learners to flex those memory muscles and apply what they’ve learned while simultaneously spreading that knowledge throughout the workplace.

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 tools and resources 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 techniques proven to aid in retention, 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.

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