Blog Post

Three Steps to Make Learning Last

Dr. Tom Tonkin

Principal, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

I think it’s fair to say we all want our learning to last. I think we call it ’sticky’. We spend many hours reading, watching videos or in training classes, we want to see our efforts (and our expense) pay off. From a corporate perspective, CEB, a research firm, reports that sales representatives are forgetting 70 percent of the content that they receive in one week, and 90 percent in one month. That’s from the learner side of the equation. From another point of view, leaders are looking for lasting learning to go to the next step and provide bottom line impact. An ATD/ROI Institute study found that 96 percent percent of CEOs stated that their number one concern in learning is the associated impact it may bring. They want proof that their investment in learning has a corporate payoff.

In this post, I break down two learning ingredients, the learning process and the learning content into the two areas for consideration to make learning last.

Making Learning Last

The first key ingredient, the learning process, at the lowest level, is to move the new, learned material from short-term memory (STM) to long-term memory (LTM) such that it can be accessed when needed for many years to come. This process is called . This process also transcends age, gender, experience and other demographics when we consider creating learning content because we are addressing the human brain. Whenever we consume information, we are storing it first in short-term memory. This is a very similar paradigm of that of a PC. When we are entering information, we are entering it into memory. When we hit the save button, that moves the data from memory to the hard drive for later retrieval and use. So, how do we 'hit the save button'?

The way to move information we consumed from STM to LTM is through rehearsal and repetition, however, we must be sure that that the information consumed is correct. The adage "practice makes perfect" is false, practice makes permanent. Be sure you have the correct information when the student rehearses and repeats as we are not only moving information from STM to LTM, but we are also creating new information that is generated from the experience itself.

The second key ingredient, the learning content, suggests that we also need to understand that the human brain is composed, at the highest level, of two sides, the right brain and the left brain. We know that the right brain addresses aspects that are abstract; it concerns itself with the big picture, while the left brain addresses the detailed piece; it creates the linear directions needed to accomplish something. The left brain makes the ideas of the right brain come to life.

The last key ingredient, also concerning content is that we need to ensure that the information correctly stored in the brain and easily retrieved. The default way that the brain stores all sorts of information is using schemas (Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2005)). Think of schemas as little cubbyholes created from our previous experiences. When we learn new information, if not given a new schema, we will utilize older schemas to store this new information. Sometimes the schema could not match-up to the learning purpose.

To illustrate this, in a recent meeting with top level executives at a for profit organization, I conducted a word association exercise. I presented the group with a word, with no context, or, in our case, a schema, and then gave them 15 seconds to write down other words that described the given word. The word I gave them was ’baseball’. After fifteen seconds, we went around the room to see what everyone wrote. There were some standard answers like ’past time and ’sport’, but there was one person that gave us another set of words. He chose ’passion’ and ’dream’. When we discussed his words, he told us that when we was a child, his dream was to be a professional baseball player. As a matter of fact, he tried out for the Majors at one point. His schema was based on his experience and without context for the word, that is where his brain placed the word baseball.

So, what do we need to do to make our learning last. Below are three steps, based on these findings that will make your learning investment last.

Practical Application

  1. Be sure you have a process of learning that allows the learner to rehearse and repeat information.
  2. Insist that the content is sorted in such a way that the learner is consuming the right content for the right reason. Tell them what and for what purpose they need to learn something. Connecting the right (abstract) part of the brain to the left (linear) part of the brain.
  3. Lastly, Does the learner know for what purpose they are consuming the content? This allows them to classify the learning for greater retention in the correct, created schema.

Looking at your on-going learning efforts, are you making learning last? Let me know via Twitter @DrTomTonkin -- #LearningLast.

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