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Knowledge retention

Knowledge retention

Table of Contents

    Understanding and remembering information may seem like a straightforward concept, but it is actually a complex process that involves multiple aspects of cognition. The phenomena of knowledge retention and knowledge loss are especially important for instructional designers, managers, and educators. Designing learning experiences that will promote the ability to effectively understand, remember, and apply information is key to successful training.

    So, what is knowledge retention really? In this post, you’ll learn the following: 

    • What is knowledge retention?
    • Why does knowledge retention matter?
    • How can you know knowledge is retained? 
    • What prevents knowledge retention?
    • What promotes knowledge retention?

    What is knowledge retention?

    To put it simply, you “know” something when you can recall it at a relevant and useful moment. This signals that you have:

    1. Absorbed the information and its meaning
    2. Made neural connections that allow it to be integrated into your larger web of knowledge
    3. Submitted the information to long-term memory

    Let’s put this into context. Say it is your first day at a new job which includes new hire onboarding with a human resources professional sharing all the information about your insurance, PTO policy, tech log-in information, and so on. This is likely an overwhelming time when you take in a lot of information. Now, imagine that months later, you go to submit a PTO request but can’t remember the process for doing so. Even though you understood the PTO submission process when it was explained to you and thought it was simple, you can’t remember the information and need to look back at the document shared with you on your first day that outlines the process. This is because information learned and understood doesn’t necessarily get retained or memorized. 

    In order to count as knowledge retention, learners would need to move that information from short-term memory (where you recall new information a day or week later) and into long-term memory (where you recall it months or years later). Learners who find information important, regularly apply it to their lives, and make novel associations between multiple pieces of information will experience better knowledge retention. 

    The knowledge retention process

    What is the knowledge retention process? Cognitively, the process looks something like this: 

    1. Sensory memory: When you experience something (see it, hear it, feel it, etc.), it enters your sensory memory. This is a short-lived stage that will pass quickly if you don’t act on it. It’s mostly outside of conscious awareness and occurs only momentarily.
    2. Attention moves information to working memory: When you focus on the sensory experience with attention, it will move into your working memory. This is not automatic. You have plenty of sensory experiences every day (such as billboards you zoom by or sounds you hear in the background) that don’t gain your attention and pass by without any extended notice. When you do focus with attention, you can move that piece of information into working memory. Information stored here is only temporarily held. 
    3. Encode information from short-term to long-term memory: If you continue to build on that piece of information by encoding it into your long-term memory, it will become something understood more deeply. One way this happens is when you associate it with another existing memory, creating neural pathways that enmesh the new knowledge with existing knowledge. Also, if new information seems really important or greatly impacts your life, it creates a stronger neural pathway in the brain. 
    4. Recall information for later use: A piece of information that has been effectively encoded into long-term memory can be recalled later and used in novel ways to aid in relevant tasks and as a base for encoding related new knowledge. The more information is recalled, the more embedded it becomes in your memory.

    When the human memory system works effectively, it creates an ever-growing web of connected information. These connections provide the key for application and open up opportunities to continue adding to existing knowledge. The average person’s memory has almost endless potential for knowledge retention.

    Why does knowledge retention matter?

    Exposure to an idea is not the same as understanding the concept or submitting it to memory. This is important because learners are often expected to “know” something when they’ve merely been exposed to it in passing. 

    So, what is knowledge retention in the workplace? An understanding of this concept provides a central pillar to building training materials and microlearning opportunities that work. Essentially, an understanding of knowledge retention and the cognitive processes that make it happen provide instructional designers, managers, and educators the context they need to build successful learning environments. 

    Failure to understand the complexity of knowledge retention can lead to superficial learning experiences that leave learners disengaged and without the understanding they need. Furthermore, poorly designed training environments can lead to frustration for the entire workforce. Employees feel frustrated that they don’t have the knowledge they need to succeed. Simultaneously, supervisors feel frustrated that expectations are not being met. 

    Training without attention to knowledge retention is often a waste of time and energy.

    How can you know knowledge is retained?

    One thing that makes effective training challenging is that knowledge retention is unique to each individual learner. Every learner comes into a learning environment with their own neurological operating system. What best activates attention (and minimizes distraction) will vary from person to person. Furthermore, prior experience and existing knowledge mean that some learners will be able to quickly encode a piece of new information, while others will need more exposure or even additional foundational knowledge before new information is retained.

    All of this diversity in processing means that effective learning environments should build in opportunities to check for knowledge retention. These checks need to be more than superficial multiple-choice quizzes. Instead, checks should challenge learners to use knowledge in novel ways that require recall, analysis, and real-world application.  

    What prevents knowledge retention?

    Instructional designers, managers, and educators need to understand what hinders knowledge retention just as well as they understand what promotes it. 

    The primary challenge to knowledge retention is forgetting. As a team of researchers wrote in “Improving Students’ Long-Term Knowledge Retention Through Personalized Review”: 

    “Forgetting is ubiquitous. Regardless of the nature of the skills or material being taught, regardless of the age or background of the learner, forgetting happens.” 

    This process of inevitable knowledge loss is called the “forgetting curve” and it happens to everyone. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus coined this term, and his findings have long been an alarming reality for educators and trainers. Ebbinghaus posited that learners immediately begin forgetting material from the moment they’ve learned it. Then, as the days and weeks pass, more and more knowledge loss occurs. On average, learners forget 90% of new knowledge within a month

    In some ways, education itself is just a race against forgetting. Common barriers to knowledge retention include:

    • Front-loaded onboarding: If new employees are expected to review large amounts of information at once (called “massed practice”), they are far more likely to forget. 
    • Bias against review: Many training systems see reviews as a waste of time. This bias prevents knowledge retention by missing an opportunity to build in the repetition of concepts over time (called “temporal spacing”). 
    • Cognitive overload: Put simply, the human brain can only process so much information in any given period. The more novel the information is, the less opportunity the learner has to encode that information using existing knowledge. When lessons present too much new information at once, learners simply cannot retain it, no matter how hard they try. 
    • Lack of relevance: If a training does not provide examples, storytelling, or steps for the learner to apply the information in their own lives, they don’t see the relevance and therefore don’t retain the information. 

    What promotes knowledge retention?

    A solid knowledge retention strategy is to empower learners to not just gain exposure to concepts but to review them repeatedly and practice them in a real-world context until they’ve successfully encoded them cognitively. At this point, recall and application are frequent, and the information becomes a foundational element for novel extensions. In other words, your employees will have the ability to use the knowledge they’ve gained in new ways to solve problems and create new neural connections. 

    Best practices for effective knowledge retention

    Use these knowledge retention principles to optimize your learning environment:

    • Bite-sized modules: Breaking down pieces of information into smaller chunks so that learners can process them individually allows for a lighter cognitive load at any given time. 
    • Spaced repetition: Knowledge cannot simply be “covered” once and considered complete. Learners need the opportunity to revisit critical knowledge multiple times with space in between for processing and hands-on application.
    • Multiple formats: Present information in multiple formats (video, audio, text, graphs, etc.) to appeal to many different learning styles. This ensures that learners have a variety of inputs that meet their attention needs and trigger multiple sensory memory initiations. 
    • Easily accessible learning: E-learning and gamification make training sessions easily accessible and on-demand to better fit learners’ schedules. 

    A dedicated learning management system (LMS) allows instructional designers, managers, and educators to deliver a wide variety of information in a way that meets these principles. A robust, interactive LMS will enable you to build engaging learning experiences that take place in a spaced, managed timeline. This allows training to take place with repetition in small chunks that maximizes knowledge retention and builds learner confidence and application over time. 

    Designing effective learning experiences requires a thorough understanding of how learning works. Now that you have an answer to “What is knowledge retention?”, keep learning. Find out more about key concepts in learning by visiting our glossary of educational terminology.