Learning retention challenges

Blog

November 01, 2018

Learning retention challenges

By Mark Nilles

Director, Learning and Impact

This is the fourth blog in a 5-part blog series on learning retention. The first three blogs in the series presented the case for learning retention—from getting the most from an investment in training to the science of learning to the various benefits of learning retention.  If you’ve read the first three blogs and think learning retention is heavenly—you’re right; but this blog will bring you back to earth. Learning retention is wonderful, but it’s not to be taken lightly. If you want to pursue the type of learning retention described in this blog series, this blog will help you understand the realities ahead. Each prior blog (all 3 linked above) is a short read and will provide useful background.

This blog series has made the case that if you’re going to invest in learning, you should invest in effective learning, which often requires opportunities to revisit, test, and practice knowledge and skills. This approach is more likely to lead to improved performance and results in the workplace. Further, this blog series has outlined how learning retention can be accomplished with simple tools we use every day, including email. This blog series has also outlined the various benefits derived from learning retention.

What this blog series has not done yet is provide a candid description of the realities and challenges inherent in developing, designing, and delivering this type of learning retention program. Although the solution is simple, it takes time, talent, and subject matter expertise to support learning retention. 

Why? Because as noted in the previous articles, learning retention is grounded in principles of effective learning and there’s a methodology that promotes good learning retention program development. This methodology involves the identification of capabilities gained from the learning event (e.g., learning objectives), the applications of those capabilities, and the results of successful application. 

This type of methodology is not always necessary—learning retention can be supported with less structured and less comprehensive approaches—but a more rigorous methodology is a very useful process for developing a program that supports not only learning retention but also the application of new knowledge and skills in the workplace. And by delivering this added value, program participation is likely to be higher and more sustained.

However, program participation overall is another important challenge to discuss. The truth is that not everyone will engage in learning retention. It can be difficult knowing that a program you work hard to make valuable will not be equally embraced by all participants. But many will participate.

Since 2015, we’ve invited more than 6000 workshop participants to join learning retention programs.  Nearly two thirds have accepted that invitation. Those who accept the invitation on average answer 42% of the questions sent to them. And several hundred have shared with us their success stories through the program, demonstrating that they value the learning retention program and are committed to learning and performance.

Of course, valuing learning retention also requires the learning retention to be valuable in the first place.  And that is the third challenge to discuss here. As explained earlier, learners tend to appreciate and engage most often with questions that are easy to understand and can be answered quickly. However, simplistic questions or questions with obvious answers rarely engage people or demonstrate value. On the other hand, questions that are too difficult—especially if asked at or near the beginning of a learning retention program—can also demotivate participant engagement. 

There’s no easy solution to this “Goldilocks” dilemma, but there are a few approaches that seem to help participant engagement. First, we generally begin our learning retention programs with a few multiple-choice questions that we feel every participant of the learning event should be able to answer correctly.  This is meant to help participants build confidence in their knowledge of the material and in the value of participating. Subsequent questions can build on this confidence through more difficult questions.

Upon answering a question, participants receive feedback on whether they answered the question correctly as well as additional information, context, and thoughts on how to apply the concept in the workplace. This feedback concludes with a preview of the question that will be delivered next to entice ongoing engagement.

Another approach that tends to improve engagement is to link all questions in the learning retention program to an overall scenario—questions can work sequentially through the lifecycle of a realistic process. This can be effective, but it also takes time and talent to develop.

The final challenge can also be framed as an opportunity. There’s a lot of potential value in the data that is collected through the programs that Humentum delivers but leveraging the full value of that data requires a clear purpose, careful planning, and the discipline to see plans through. This is not a challenge unique to learning retention programs, but it is always worth noting that collecting data is generally easy; analyzing and acting based on that data, however, is difficult. At its best, data can be used to identify success, understand what needs improvement, and document success.

To summarize the key points in this blog:

  • Learning retention programs are more effective and engaging if they are developed using a methodology that focuses not only on learning but also application, results, and goals
  • Even the best learning retention programs are unlikely to have full participation, but there are ways to add meaning and value to programs that seem to help
  • Ideally, data can be used to identify and understand success and make improvements

Intrigued by the concept of learning retention? The final blog in this series, “Leveraging the learning retention approach” will be published tomorrow morning and includes an opportunity to sign up for a learning retention program on the topic of learning retention. The program will be delivered to you by email and will include fun, quiz-type questions that reinforce the concepts discussed in the blog and help you consider ways to use or adapt the concepts and approach in your work.

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