earning retention: it’s one of the holy grails of corporate training and development.
What is learning retention? Learning retention refers to how much content a learner is able to recall one day/week/month after engaging in a training program.
In the world of businesses seeking peak efficiency, the idea that we are likely to forget a good portion of our training within a short period of time is nothing less than blasphemy. Yet even if we discard the well-debunked idea that we only retain 10% of what we read, the reality remains that the sad majority of training programs are all-too-forgettable.
So, how can you improve the memorability of your training?
Short answer: engage the hippocampus using the AGES model.
The AGES model was born back in 2010 out of decades of cognitive and neuroscience, and continues to stand the test of time as a set of practices that engage the hippocampus to improve learning retention.
The hippocampus is a small part of the brain that packs a big punch. It’s critical in the process of turning short term memory into long term memory. The more active the hippocampus while learning new information, the more likely it is to be retained.
The AGES model promotes four methods to engage the hippocampus: Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing.
Ensuring you have your learner’s attention may seem like an obvious prerequisite for learning. After all, a learner that’s gazing out the window, wondering what they’re going to eat for lunch is hardly learning, right?
You’re not wrong. Concentrated focus on a single topic activates the hippocampus by signalling to the brain that something important is taking place.
However, just because you’ve asked for your learner’s attention doesn’t mean they will give it to you. If you’re pushing new training courses onto an already time-poor team, they might attempt to multitask as they complete the course. Multitasking is highly detrimental for learning, with an attention penalty incurred every time their focus flicks between tasks.
Even if you start with your learner’s attention, you’re not guaranteed to maintain it either. Our brains work best with cycles of refresh and refocus. The amount of time you can hold a person’s attention can vary according to the content and context of your training, however there will always be a limit before minds begin to wander towards distractions.
The Takeaway: Hold your learner’s attention by giving them a distraction-free time and space to complete the training, and avoid cognitive overload within your content.
Attention is an important place to start, but as many death-by-PowerPoint presentations or endless video learning courses have proven, a learner that’s looking at the right screen is hardly guaranteed to retain the course content.
Generation is about taking an active role in learning and connecting new ideas to existing knowledge schemes.
Neuroimaging has long shown that brains are complex webs of neural pathways. Neural pathways are physically strengthened through repeated activation, and strong pathways lead to strong memories.
Encouraging learners to take an active, creative role in the learning process helps learners to connect what they are learning with what they already know. By tapping into existing neural networks and creating associations, the cognitive burden is reduced and retention is increased.
Examples of activities that can achieve this include asking learners to:
- Apply new knowledge to situations they are familiar with, or will be relevant to them.
- Reflect on what they have learned and how it might impact their future actions
- Teach the content to someone new
The Takeaway: Include activities in your training that guide learners to connect what they are learning with what they already know.
Emotion is one of the most powerful and fickle elements that can influence learning retention. Whether it’s the best holiday you ever went on, or a moment of crushing embarrassment, memories that are linked with strong emotions are highly memorable.
Strong emotions have the power to hone our attention in the moment and can simultaneously activate the amygdala region of our brain, which in turn alerts the hippocampus to boost the importance of the information at hand and encode it in our long-term memory.
However, it’s important to be generating positive emotions. Positive emotions are strongly linked to creativity, insight and perceptiveness. On the flip side, negative emotions can actually distract from learning by activating our threat responses, or cause us to reject new information if the emotions are linked to the source of the learning.
The Takeaway: Experiment with methods for increasing positive emotions during learning, such as through storytelling, or light games, and ensure that any face-to-face trainers are engaging and respected by your learners.
Many of us have experienced the last minute cram of information into our brains in the days and hours before a big exam in school or university. You walk into the exam an expert, and walk out practically a novice again. For all that cramming, once you no longer need the knowledge, it begins to leak within hours and is all but gone within days.
As it turns out, your teacher was right when they said you should start studying weeks before the exam - not hours. Memories are mostly effectively built over time through revisiting and recalling the information, strengthening the associated neural pathways in our brains.
Though there’s no magic formula for how long the gaps should be between sessions, the chance to sleep works wonders. Sleep works as a powerful time for the brain to encode memories for long-term recall.
If you are looking for a magic formula though, 3 is the optimum number of times to revisit learning content for peak retention.
The Takeaway: Avoid cramming all your training into a single session, never to be revisited. Instead, create ways for your learners to revisit the information over the course of a few weeks.
Make it last
At HowToo, we’re big fans of the AGES model because it’s grounded in neuroscience and has proven itself as a reliable framework for boosting learning knowledge retention. If you’re focused on the outcomes of your training programs, knowledge retention should be at the top of your list when planning new projects, and AGES might just be the model for you.