You can teach your employees all you want, but how do you ensure that they actually remember and apply what they’ve learned on the job? The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve indicates that forgetting is exponential, and learners experience severe memory loss starting just a few days after they learned the material. Luckily, there are some strategies inspired by the psychology of memory that can help you combat the forgetting curve and ensure that learners can apply their new knowledge.
Have Employees Practice Retrieval of Information
One of the most important processes in committing information to long-term memory is consolidation and re-consolidation. Essentially, in order for a memory to stabilize, a memory must be retrieved then consolidated again and again over the course of passing time. Time is essential for stabilization.
Therefore, it’s important to manufacture ways for your learners to do exactly that: retrieve the information again and again, preferably at increasing distances, until the company fire drill policy is so clearly marked and filed in their head that they will be able to retrieve it easily for the next twenty years.
There are several specific and varying ways you can ask your learners to practice retrieval.
- Use quizzes throughout the course material to practice initial retrieval
- Have learners complete quizzes again after time has passed since the initial course
- Use AI to detect which material the learner hasn’t yet stored to long-term memory, and return learners to that material to learn again
- Use microlearning modules to regularly refresh learners on important topics. For example, there are clients that have employees take monthly safety modules on topics like cleaning safety, awareness of laws around serving alcohol, and more
- Remind learners of material in their physical environment – for example, posted job aides in employee break rooms
- Repeat facts referenced earlier in the course multiple times and tie it into the new information later in the course
- Repeat information in new ways. For example, if information was in an infographic the first time, show it again later in the course within a video
Spread Out Training Over Time
We’ve all worked for companies that don’t think about compliance all year then ask us to complete two days of marathon training every November. If you remember cramming for tests in school the night before and then forgetting everything you learned within a week, you can understand why this is not an effective strategy.
The science backs this up. If learners have 10 hours of training to complete, it’s better to have them complete a few hours a week over several weeks.
Scientists are not sure why this is, but it could be related, again, to the way memories are solidified in our brains. By nature, returning to a subject after time passes requires practicing retrieval of previously learned material.
Structure Material to Help Create Memory Chains
Scientists are learning more about how memories are stored in the brain and how related memories are actually connected. That connection is reflected in the physical manifestation of the brain cells that store that memory. Our brains seem to organize memories by relevancy, and if you structure your material correctly, you can take advantage of these memory structures.
One method of structuring material is clustering. In clustering, facts and information is taught in related clusters. If someone needs to memorize a menu, it would be best to cluster the menu items into sections and teach each section. If someone needs to learn software, try teaching the skills they will use concurrently at the same time.
Another method of structuring that can help memory is relating new material to facts the learner already has in long-term storage. For example, if your learners already know some things about intellectual property law, call on those memories when teaching them the new changes in that law from the past year.
Teach Mnemonic Devices
Mnemonic devices may seem like a silly tool from elementary school. Sure, you learned the planets by reciting “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” (although, Pluto is no longer considered a planet, RIP). But can you really teach serious information that way?
Science says yes. And there are a variety of mnemonic devices to choose from. They can rhyme, they can be acrostic, they can be musical. The idea is to be creative. The more novel your device, the more likely learners will be enthusiastic about remembering it.
Mnemonic devices might be an especially good choice for remember safety tips in an emergency. For example, the widely perpetuated “Stop Drop and Roll” is something anyone can repeat because the alliteration makes it easy to remember. “PASS” is a common acrostic mnemonic for remembering the steps of using a fire extinguisher. These memories and this method of memory serve us into adulthood.
Encourage Your Learners to Sleep
An equally important but often overlooked method to improving memory recall is sleep. The science says again and again that the wrong amount of sleep negatively affects memory and cognition. Contrary to popular belief, the negative effects can actually arise when getting too little OR too much. Although, in our work-obsessed culture, it’s more likely that we’re getting too little.
While sleep may seem beyond your control, there are things you can do in the office to help employees sleep better. You can:
- Encourage employees to go on walks throughout the workday. Exercise can both increase the quality and duration of sleep.
- Create a culture with a great work-life balance. Reward people who work smart and perform well during work hours, not those that work late to get things done. Encourage employees to leave their work at the office instead of swapping slack messages until midnight. On top of that, mean it when you tell them to use their PTO to rest up. Have managers set an example by doing the same.
- Expose employees to natural sunlight by choosing offices with windows or installing sun lamps. Sunlight naturally helps encourage a healthy sleep cycle.
- If the nature of your work environment permits flexible work hours, let employees take advantage of that! Some employees will do much better if they can sleep in and work between 10 and 6 instead of 9 to 5.
It’s not so ridiculous for companies to get involved in helping their employees lead healthier lives. You don’t want to end up with a culture where falling asleep in public from overworking yourself is seen as a positive sign of diligence.
Memory, and how it works exactly, will continue to be elusive for a long time. But we know enough to realize that repetition, association-building, structure, time, and taking care of our brains (and bodies) are all factors that contribute to effective memory-building. These are the factors you should consider when building memorable courses.