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Why learning without reinforcement is a lost opportunity


Learning reinforcement is vital for successful workplace learning. Without it your employees will find it harder to remember and apply what they learn.

Stephen Miller looks at what’s at stake if reinforcement is missing from your corporate learning strategy.  

Forgetting facts

The human mind forgets at an alarming rate. The amount of information people forget increases over time, following a typical pattern of degradation:

  • Within one hour, an average of 50 percent is lost
  • Within 24 hours, an average of 70 percent is lost
  • Within one week, an average of 90 percent is lost

These figures are based on research into the ‘forgetting curve’, first identified more than 100 years ago by Herman Ebbinghaus. His scientific methods left a lot to be desired by today’s standards, but his theory on memory has since been replicated in modern research

“No matter how much you invest into training and development, nearly everything you teach to your employees will be forgotten.” Professor Art Kohn Cognitive Neuroscientist

Cognitive neuroscientist, Professor Art Kohn calls the rate at which we forget what we learn, the ‘dirty secret’ of corporate training. But he also points out that it’s perfectly normal – the brain can’t remember everything and actively suppresses some information to avoid overload and confusion. The trouble is, it doesn’t always retain the important stuff and “throws the baby away with the bath water” as Kohn puts it.

Mind the gap

Thankfully, we now understand more about why the brain retains some things while forgetting others.  Research by Professor of Psychology at Washington University, Henry Roediger reveals a link between the retrieval of information and memory. His research found that a group of students learning foreign language vocabulary words did better if they were tested repeatedly after study.  More study after initial learning without testing had no impact on their recall ability.  In summary, the act of retrieving information is a way of telling the brain that the information is worth remembering.

However, it turns out that when knowledge is retrieved matters too.  Scientific research has identified that our retention of information improves further when the time between testing (or retrieval) is spaced out. This Spacing Effect has been studied by learning expert, Will Thalheimer who found that interval reinforcement on the job after training improves people’s ability to apply what they learn, and the closer learning reinforcement takes place to the point at which it is needed, the more it will be remembered and used.

Dramatic results

Our growing understanding of how the brain learns means reinforcement is moving up the agenda in corporate learning. This can only be good for employees and businesses alike, given the challenges facing today’s workforce. Many sectors are changing rapidly; business is more complex; budgets are tight; customers are better informed, more demanding. 

Employees must upskill or reskill to stay ahead and improve productivity, but they are time-starved and over-burdened with information. In this climate, learning reinforcement is a necessity. Organisations need their investment in workplace learning to count, and without reinforcement, even the best learning programme runs the risk of being largely forgotten in a matter of weeks.

Golden opportunity

The Learning & Development commentator, Josh Bersin suggests learning reinforcement (or spaced learning) fuelled by smart technology is carving out a new corporate learning architecture.  He says spaced learning is “revolutionising sales training, safety training, and soon even management skills development.” Technology is certainly making learning reinforcement easier and more cost effective to implement. 

But whatever your approach to learning reinforcement, don’t treat it as an afterthought or a nice to have. Make it a fundamental part of your training campaign, as important as the initial learning intervention.  It’s your golden opportunity to make learning stick for longer.