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Using Memory Engineering To Aid Learning Retention copy

Using Memory Engineering to Aid Learning Retention

Recently I was re-reading my first-ever post for this blog, based on an article in Wired magazine entitled “Clive Thompson on Memory Engineering." The gist of it was that a (then) new service called 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo would summarize and email your Foursquare “check-ins” from a year before, resulting in, as Thompson calls it, “a curiously powerful daily jolt of reminiscence.”

At the time, I found this interesting as a jumping-off point for thinking about how “memory engineering” could be leveraged to increase retention of content learned in the workplace.

Well, times have changed. Today, you can open a number of social media applications and see what you were thinking and doing in years past. But calling it “memory engineering” has never caught on. In fact, today memory engineering is being studied in its most literal (and terrifying) sense: the manipulation of memory through suppression, or even the creation of false memory.

Despite Thompson’s benign misuse of the term, his point remains: reminders help learners recall and retain more of what they have learned. Thompson cites an example:

At the moment, most memory engineering is ‘episodic,’ focused on your personal experiences. […] But these techniques can also work with ‘semantic’ memories of facts and info. Last winter, Amazon released a clever app called Daily Review, which takes your Kindle clippings and redisplays them for you weeks or months later – timed on a schedule that’s designed to help you absorb your reading more deeply into your brain. It’s like a book that leaps off the shelf every once in a while and reminds you of the stuff you’ve highlighted.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (1)

In the learning industry, we often refer to Hermann Ebbinghaus’s "Forgetting Curve," which describes how our memory decreases over time. In short, we tend to forget most of what we learn over the course of time, unless we practice, and are reminded. Another version of the Ebbinghaus Curve displays how learning retention will increase when information is repeated over the course of time:

Forgetting Curve With Repetition

We know that repetition is key to improving retention and performance.

Imagine a service that sends you reminders of the most challenging stuff you’ve learned and need to retain, on a schedule you define. I think of myself as a college student, with five or six classes per semester and final exams ahead. What might a service like 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo, adapted for my finals schedule, have done for my learning!

And let’s take it a step further: What would it be like to receive reminders over the years of the interesting things you learned at university in order to pass an exam, and then promptly forgot? What kind of powerhouse might I be if I could remember the things I learned in my macroeconomics or statistics courses? How might my life be richer if I were reminded from time to time about the books and art and music I was exposed to in my humanities and literature classes? How might our society be improved if we were reminded of the history and civics lessons so many of us have forgotten?

But, I digress!

Unfortunately, few organizations exhibit a commitment to retention when developing their learning programs. Most business cultures still maintain a “one and done” philosophy when it comes to training. See if any of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • Company A is rolling out a new ERP system. The project has taken years to bring to fruition, and training is the last piece of the puzzle. By the time training occurs, people on the project are just happy to be “finished” with development. Training is the last step before “go-live.” They check that off the list, thinking they’re done. But once the system is launched, they’re surprised by the reduction in staff productivity, or by the overwhelming number of calls to the Help Desk.
  • Company B requires all staff members to take an online course on cyber-security. The IT Department routinely addresses situations that breach security, despite the training. It’s frustrating, but the response to their concerns is that “training on cyber-security is performed annually and almost all learners pass the knowledge check.”
  • The HR department at Company C has received several complaints about a particular manager’s leadership style. They send this person on a management training course. A year later, they have to terminate the manager’s employment due to a failure to improve.

These situations don’t have to happen. Instead of thinking about “learning and development” as a bunch of courses to be offered and checked off when completed, focus on the learners themselves. What are their needs? Where do they struggle? How do they want to grow within the organization? Then, provide training and follow-up (performance support) to address those needs. If learning is included in an employee’s annual objectives, follow it up with application. Provide opportunities, when possible, to use what they’ve learned. Have them share what they learned with others. This not only builds the bench, it may dramatically increase the learner’s retention.


The Learning PyramidIn the planning stages of a training project, the training lead should advocate for a lengthier training period than that required to simply provide training courses prior to go-live. Socialize the message that training is not “one and done,” but that it requires follow-up and support. Work with change management experts to provide a robust and supportive environment for the learner to relearn and find answers to questions beyond the initial training.

Consider multi-modal follow-up. For example, you could send teams an occasional email reminder of a key fact or frequently asked question periodically after training has occurred. These kinds of reminders actually help the learner recall other aspects of the training that they have associated in their minds with the information you’re providing. Or create a social learning space on your intranet site where employees can share information they’ve picked up with other team members. Email, text messages, social learning applications, and performance support tools are all building blocks to improve learner retention and recall.

In summary, well-developed retention plans should be incorporated into any learning plan we produce for an organization. We don’t need “memory engineering;” we just need planned follow-up, reminders, and performance support to make learning successful.

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