How to Increase Employee Knowledge Retention

It happens to all of us — you can sing along with a song you haven’t heard in years, yet when you go to login to your email you can’t remember the password.

Why does this happen? What makes us remember some things, and forget others?

According to cognitive psychology, memory formation involves two essential parts: encoding and retrieval. Put simply: encoding is when new information is “added” to your memory; retrieval is when you recall that information — i.e. when you remember it. [1]

When we forget something, it’s usually because the information wasn’t encoded properly. [2]

As learning professionals, we want to ensure employees don’t forget what they’ve learned in training. Let’s look at some ways we can ensure information is encoded correctly — and how we can improve retention of that knowledge.

 
 

Increased Knowledge Retention = Increased ROI

Unless we’re running training to check a box (and we shouldn’t be), we generally want people to remember & implement what they’ve learned.

After all, you can’t apply information you can’t remember.

Increasing the amount of information retained can also increase employees’ confidence, further improving the chance they apply what they’ve learned.

8 Tactics to Improve the Retention of Learning After Training

Improving knowledge retention involves both encoding and retrieval; we need to ensure the information presented in training is successfully encoded in employees’ brains and we need to assist them in retrieving that information.

Let’s look at some scientifically proven tactics for increasing the retention of knowledge learned after training.

1. Spread learning sessions out

One way to improve knowledge retention is with distributed practice — in other words, spreading learning sessions out over time.

We’ve all felt the adverse effects of en-masse learning: think of how burnt out you feel after a full-day training session, and how little you remember the next day.  This happens because there is too much information for the brain to process — and it “weeds out” what it judges to be less important.

However, when we distribute learning sessions, there is significantly less information for the brain to process. This makes it easier for knowledge to be encoded. And, by spreading the practice over time, employees also need to practice recalling information they learned at previous practice sessions.  This helps further encode the information, and improve recall rates.

2. Include practice tests

Practice testing is another method that improves retention.  It works by helping learners practice remembering learned information.

“testing can enhance retention by triggering elaborative retrieval processes. Attempting to retrieve target information involves a search of long-term memory that activates related information, and this activated information may then be encoded along with the retrieved target, forming an elaborated trace that affords multiple pathways to facilitate later access to that information.” [3]

However, for practice testing to work, you need to ensure there are low to no stakes for learners. In other words, it has to be a learning activity, not an evaluation.

3. Use microlearning

Making learning sessions shorter can also increase retention.  Shorter sessions help reduce the amount of information the brain has to process at one time, making it easier for knowledge to be encoded.

Microlearning also has the side benefit of reducing overall training time per employee, which can significantly reduce training costs due to lost productive hours.

4. Repeat Information in Different Formats

Studies have also shown that appealing to a variety of senses during training can help improve learning and retention. [4]

By offering the same content in a variety of formats, you help to engage different senses and increase learning.  Repetition of material can also help improve learning and retention much in the same way that practice testing does; by practicing recalling information already learned.

5. Mix topics up

Combining different subjects — or “interleaved practice”—  is another way to help encode learning in long-term memory.  Mixing different topics forces learners to practice recalling information and applying it to different situations.

“Another possible explanation [for why interleaved practice is effective] is based on the distributed retrieval from long-term memory that is afforded by interleaved practice. [...] for blocked practice, the information relevant to completing a task [...] should reside in working memory; hence, participants should not have to retrieve the solution. [...] By contrast, for interleaved practice, when the next type of problem is presented, the solution method for it must be retrieved from long-term memory.” [5]

6. Include hands-on aspects to training

Encouraging active participation instead of just passive engagement with training materials can also help encode knowledge. Studies have shown that our ability to remember things we hear is significantly less compared to our ability to remember things we see and touch. [6]

As one study found, “organized psychomotor participation increases the learning of a given technological concept. It can be generalized that hands-on activities are effective learning experiences for any applicable concept.” [7]

 

7. Build upon existing information

Scientists have shown that it’s easier to build upon existing knowledge than to start from scratch.

The brain remembers information better if it can link new info to knowledge already encoded.  You can take advantage of this in your training by building courses into “levels” around existing knowledge.

By linking the courses and using each subsequent course to build on previously gained knowledge you can help the brain connect information — making it easier to learn and to remember (retain).

8. Use games

Multiple studies have shown that a game-based approach to training not only makes learning more enjoyable but can improve knowledge retention.

"Participants assigned to the game condition scored significantly higher on a retention test." [8]

By making training more enjoyable, employees are more likely to pay attention and care about what they are learning — even if the subject is not exciting. [9]

Game-based learning also uses a similar structure as microlearning, which helps break large topics into manageable “bite-sized” chunks, increasing retention and comprehension.

 

The Bottom Line

To increase knowledge retention, your training has to effectively encode new information and help employees practice retrieving it.

Use a combination of psychological techniques like distributed practice, practice testing, interleaved practice, levels, microlearning, and repetition to help improve the retention of knowledge after training ends.

 

Sources:

  1. Jeffrey D Karpickle. "A powerful way to improve learning and memory." American Psychological Association, June 2016.
  2. Debora S Herold. "Remembering to Learn: Five Factors for Improving Recall." Faculty Focus, 11 October 2018.
  3. John Dunlosky, et al. “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol 14, no. 1, January 2013.
  4. Diane Cole. "A Message From Your Brain: I'm Not Good at Remembering What I Hear." National Geographic, 13 March 2014.
  5. John Dunlosky, et al. “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol 14, no. 1, January 2013.
  6. Diane Cole. "A Message From Your Brain: I'm Not Good at Remembering What I Hear." National Geographic, 13 March 2014.
  7. Anthony R. Korwin & Ronald E. Jones. "Do Hands-On, Technology-Based Activities Enhance Learning by Reinforcing Cognitive Knowledge and Retention? Journal of Technology Education, vol. 1, no. 2, Spring 1990.
  8. Katrina E. Ricci, Eduardo Salas & Janis A. Connon-Bowers. "Do Computer-Based Games Facilitate Knowledge Acquisition and Retention?" Military Psychology, vol. 8, issue 4, 1996.
  9. Martin Boeker, et al. "Game-Based E-Learningg is More Effective than a Conventional Instructional Method: A Randomized Controlled Trial with Third-Year Medical Students." PLoS ONE, vol.8, no.12, 2013.