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"I've a grand memory for forgetting." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Employees tell us they want their leaders to invest in their training and development. And yet, when we go out of our way to schedule a learning session on the job, we hear lots of grumbling and groaning. Walk the floor before one of these sessions and you're likely to hear, "They want us to hit our goals this week, and yet they are yanking us off the job for two hours of training," or "I'm swamped with end-of-the month work, and I've got to attend an all-day seminar I never signed up for."

Fast-forward to one week after the training is over. What are the odds that your team will retain or utilize what they learned? If we are being honest, the answer is somewhere in the ballpark of slim to none. Training binders gather dust in cubicles or find their way into the abyss of a desk drawer, never to be cracked again.

So what is the problem? Is it the employees? Do they just complain for the sake of complaining? Or could it be that learning in the workplace is broken and it's up to leadership to take a new approach?

Why Does Your Team Instantly Forget What They Learn?

Most people forget what they learn because there is little to no follow up after training. Hard skills are one thing. When you're teaching a concept such as a new software program, the team has to revisit those skills immediately, and therefore, the learning sticks.

Heuristic skills, or what we consider concept-oriented skills, are different. There is often little deliberate practice that follows a soft-skill training session and, therefore, the learning evaporates quickly. Leaders often make the mistake of assuming their team will be disciplined enough to put their heuristic training into practice on their own. The truth? Most people simply don't have that self-discipline, and managers are rarely given an action plan for helping their teams instil the new concepts they have learned.

We've all heard of a learning curve, but there is also a very real forgetting curve that shows:

  • We immediately forget almost 20% of what we learn.
  • After 20 minutes we lose 42% of what we learned.
  • Within two days we've forgotten 72%.
  • Within 31 days we've forgotten 79% of what we learn.

Our brains are more like sieves than steel traps, and it is human nature to forget most of what we learn in a typical training session. It's up to leaders to develop better ways to not only teach, but to facilitate long-term retention and action.

Chunked Learning: Making Concepts Stick On The Job

Enter chunked learning, a memory-development concept developed by George A. Miller in 1956. Chunking is based upon the idea that as humans, we can typically only remember 7 numbers. After that, our brains go into cognitive overload. Chunked learning breaks up long strings of information into units, or "chunks," that are far easier to commit to memory. Take a simple birthdate, for example. It is difficult to remember 07181971, but it is easy to process and remember 7/18/71. Ask your team to remember XMIXWHYSOXHIPLET, and they may laugh at you. But break out the sequence like this, "X, MIX, WHY, SOX, HIP, LET," and you're likely to get much higher recall.

Chunking was designed for memorization, but it can similarly be applied to soft-skills training. The keys to making it stick are breaking information into smaller concepts and then developing a consistent follow up strategy. Think about apprenticeship training in the skilled trades. It is a process, not a single event. Novice professionals spend years under a "master" tradesman learning basic concepts and then building upon them under strict supervision. That same process principle can be applied to just about any area of heuristic learning including knowledge, skill, behavior and attitude. But managers must be able to pick up the ball and run with it.

To take a chunked learning approach at your company follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Identify the training need and choose a tool.
  • Step 2: Conduct a learning event that concludes with a Personal Action Plan (PAP) for each attendee.
  • Step 3: Assign "homework" that includes self-directed learning and a quiz or test that should be reviewed with a manager.
  • Step 4: Revisit the learning event and share PAP results, either as a group or one-on-one with a manager. Be sure managers have the skills and knowledge to coach each team member to success.
  • Step 5: Evaluate your team. If the skill hasn't been learned, it's time to lather, rinse and repeat until the skill is learned. Once everyone is using the skill on the job, identify the next training need and choose a tool.

Chunked learning is all about small victories. You can't expect your employees to master new skills all at once. When you break large concepts down into smaller, more manageable units and revisit those skills regularly, your training sessions will become vehicles for success rather than sources of aggravation for the team.


Larry Hart

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