Do people really forget 90% of what they learn?

People will forget, on average, half of new information you present, almost immediately. Within 24 hours, they have forgotten an average of 70 per cent of new information, and 90 per cent of it, within a week – A customer told me this last week, when we were discussing effectiveness of training and our new Digital Innovation Training Masterclasses. I have heard quite a few variations of these figures over the years, which, if taken at face value, means that any investment in training is like pumping petrol into a car that has a hole in the tank. It simply drains away. Well, the good news it turns out that this is simply not true.

The whole purpose of sending employees on company-sponsored training is to intervene in pre-existing modes of behaviour, and thinking, and alter that state to improve outcomes. Training delegates, managers, and business leaders should rightly expect that the benefits of that acquired knowledge be retained for the overall benefit of the organisation.

This is what companies pay good money for when they send employees on specialised training, particularly in areas like Banking and financial services, where the need for digitally-savvy thought leaders, who understand digital innovation and the importance of removing friction from the customer journey, through greater Innovation. However, if we accept this statement (or a variation thereof), that employees will have forgotten an average of 90 per cent of what they learn, within a week, then something is broken, and companies should be asking whether they are getting value for money.

If employees really do forget that much of what they learn, what hope is there, that the training and acquired knowledge will transfer back to the workplace? How will Banks and financial services companies build digital Innovation, and compete with non-bank payment providers, if they don’t have the right skills and knowledge?

After all, remembering what they have just learnt in, say, a digital innovation masterclass is a necessary pre-condition to changing behaviours, and if they have forgotten the lessons of the training they have just attended, there is no reason to expect they will become more effective, back in the workplace. Like many hoary old chestnuts, this one is not definite, nor are these figures proven absolutes, or even supported by facts. It appears that these statistics are derived from figures based on research conducted by Herman Ebbinghaus over 130 years ago and set out in his book on the subject.

We now know that the reality about how and why people learn is way more complex,than simply forgetting at some or other pre-defined rate over time.

The reasons behind the ability or lack thereof of some people to embed acquired knowledge in the organisation, as a consequence of training goes far beyond such simplistic statistics. It varies widely between people, organisations, and situations, and is far more complex, than making blanket statements about what people may or may not recall during company-sponsored training.

The reality is that, the amount a learner will forget varies depends on many factors, and is not as simple as a measured rate of forgetting according to one or other graph or hypothetical curve rate. It is just plain false, and the learning gurus and training managers are wrong when they make blanket statements like, ‘People forget 70% of what they learned within a day of learning’.

Of course there is ‘good’ training and ‘bad’ training, and when it comes to what training delegates recall, some people simply remember more, and others less. It also depends on the subject matter being taught. Different learning methods and techniques produce different amounts of forgetting.

Taking a different approach to training can produce profound improvements in the ability to training delegates to recall and implement what they learnt. We have found that those learning methods that are most effective are those achieved by focussing on embedding that learning, in a number of stages.

The notion of embedding is one of those terms borrowed from engineering of permanently fixing (or embedding) one substance (eg. stones) into another (eg. cement), in order to enhance overall strength. It is used to refer to that process of fixing, (or embedding) newly acquired skills into pre-existing modes of behaviour, hoping to alter their state and improve the outcomes.

So what works for us?

Stay Relevant

When it comes to skills-based training delegates, generally find it easier to memorise materials that are meaningful or relevant to them and their roles, and so its important to ensure that the training materials are developed and delivered by industry experts, with real-world experience, who can deliver up to date materials to the right people, at the right time. Material delivered by a skilled trainer, as opposed to someone who lacks first-hand knowledge, lacks that depth and breadth, and credibility is vital. I find that having someone who has the depth of experience and knowledge, and is currently (or recently) been in the same industry, and possibly even the same role as the delegates, means the content is relevant, and the trainer is engaging and less likely to lose their audience, by delivering relevant, credible information. 

Don’t rush

The amount of time that learners take to learn dramatically increases with an increase in the amount of learning material. Most of our courses are delivered over two and three day courses. This leaves time to cover a broader set of materials and to get to grips with the details, while giving enough leeway to engage learners, listening to case studies and experiences, and using their real-world examples as case studies. Repeat, Reinforce – Learners find it easier to relearn, rather than to learn everything initially itself, and so through a process of reinforcement and re-learning, delegates remember what they have learnt for longer

Connect and Close-out

Learners find learning more effective when it is spread out over time than when it is taken in a single marathon learning session. We prefer to work with organisations that recognise the need for delegates to close out the loop, after the formal part of the training has concluded, and to structure ongoing learning and reinforcement, that goes beyond the seminar, by setting up post-training reviews, contacts, Q&A’s, online meetings & video conferencing with each individual, for a period thereafter, which is why we deliver masterclass courses, but we also believe that bespoke and customised in-house training is also important.

And equally important is the ability to bundle that up into a content package and deliver that in interesting and entertaining ways, and to create an engaged audience is key, knowing how to use visual aids/video’s, slide Deck(s), handouts and printed Materials as workshop & exercise aids is vital.

Of course there are many variables when it comes to training, however when it comes to skill-based training, a subject matter expert with broad and deep experience, in their topic who knows how to draw out and package their explicit and implicit knowledge and experience, is invaluable.

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