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Learning retention

Learning retention

Table of Contents

    When it comes to enterprise learning, there’s a LOT to consider… 

    Learning retention is one of the most crucial yet sometimes undervalued challenges organizations face. 

    After all, the purpose of training is to equip employees with the skills and knowledge they need to be productive and reach their goals. But, since most of what we learn is quickly forgotten, how can we make the key training parts of the training stick?

    That’s right; by boosting learning retention.

    In this guide, we’ll look at what learning retention is, why it’s important, and how to improve it in your organization. 


    What is learning retention?

    Knowledge tends to fade from a learner’s short-term memory after a specific period. In other words, people forget things. (It’s human nature.)

    Learning retention is the process of retaining new knowledge in long-term memory and recalling it when needed.

    Effective learning retention means learners can apply the knowledge in real-life situations and store it long-term. It’s especially important for employee learning and development programs because it ensures the training garners tangible results (improved performance).

    While forgetting may seem inevitable, there are many highly effective ways to boost learning retention. (We’ll get to those a little later on.).


    Learning vs. learning retention

    So, what’s the difference between learning and learning retention?

    Learning is gaining knowledge and skills through interactions between the brain, surroundings, and nervous system. Learning retention takes this a step further. It’s the ability to retain new knowledge long-term and apply it in practical situations.

    As such, learning retention requires learners to engage their attentional resources (their ability to focus on a task or stimuli) and create conceptual frameworks that make sense and have structure. This ensures information is stored in our long-term memory and can be easily retrieved.

    Simply put, learning is acquiring new information, and learning retention is maintaining and using that knowledge in the future.

    Learning 101

    In real life, learning is much more than memory and knowledge recall. 

    Understanding, linking concepts, forming connections between past and new information, independent and critical thinking, and the capacity to transfer knowledge to new and varied situations are all components of deep and long-lasting learning.

    The following are the different stages of the learning process:

    1. Unconscious incompetence:

    Unconscious incompetence is the initial step of learning when the learner hasn’t learned anything yet. In this stage, the learner doesn’t know how to do something. In fact, they aren’t even aware of this deficit. (The saying “you don’t know what you don’t know” comes to mind.). 

    To move to the next stage, learners need to realize their lack of knowledge and recognize the value of learning the new skill.

    1. Conscious incompetence:

    Conscious incompetence is the second step of the learning process. This is where learners start to feel aware of the ability or knowledge they lack in this situation. Consequently, individuals have a desire to learn about new topics since they see the value of them.

    In a corporate environment, this is the point where learners can be readily persuaded to enroll in a course.

    1. Conscious competence:

    Conscious competence is when a learner becomes familiar with a topic or skill but still requires a conscious effort to apply the knowledge. Basically, they’ve learned the theory and need to put it into practice.

    1. Unconscious competence:

    Unconscious competence is the fourth and last level of learning. 

    It refers to reaching a degree of proficiency or mastery, where the skill becomes a habit or second nature —like typing. When you’ve taken a course or practiced long enough, you don’t even have to think about it. Your fingers just know which keys to hit.


    Why is learning retention important?

    Learning retention is one of the most significant barriers to an organization’s success. Think about it: Employees need to be able to apply new skills and put what they learn into practice on a daily basis. If they can’t retain job-critical information, they can’t perform their jobs well (or at all). This inability to grasp and apply knowledge can severely impact productivity and an employee’s work quality—not to mention a company’s bottom line.

    And that’s just one reason retention is such a critical part of the learning process.

    Learning retention is important for a number of additional reasons. 

    #1: It facilitates employee onboarding 

    Employees who can easily recall information perform better through onboarding. As a result, they settle into their new roles quicker and need less support from managers and peers.

    Using audio-visual resources can make it easier for learners to recall information.

    #2: It increases employee engagement and retention

    90% of employees decide whether to quit within six months of starting a new job. Onboarding plays a crucial role in this decision. Incorporating retention-boosting strategies into the onboarding process makes for a more positive experience, sets new hires up for success, and increases the likelihood of them staying past that critical six-month mark.  

    #3: It builds confidence

    With enough practice (and retention-focused training), new skills (even difficult ones) can quickly become second nature. When employees master a skill, it increases competence, makes their job easier, and builds confidence. It also gives them the mental and creative space to develop new ideas or pursue additional learning and development opportunities. 

    #4: It fosters a culture of continuous learning

    That learning process we mentioned? It’s not a one-time thing. It should repeat, and repeat, and repeat. That’s because people love to learn. It’s rewarding and extrinsically fun. 

    But this continuous learning loop doesn’t just happen on its own. Instead, organizations need to make learning a part of their culture. That means providing opportunities to learn that extend beyond initial onboarding. When they do, employees will find all kinds of ways to learn—whether by completing a mandatory compliance training course, consuming optional e-learning content, or watching and learning from a colleague (aka social learning).


    10 strategies to improve learning retention

    Wouldn’t it be great to read something once or twice and then be able to recall it for the rest of our lives? The sad reality is that most of what we learn goes in one ear and out the other. 

    Studies suggest that if we don’t do anything with new knowledge within one hour, most of us will forget roughly half of what we learned. After 24 hours, that number jumps up to 70%. And, if knowledge isn’t used after a week, up to 90% of it can drift off with the wind.

    For learning to stick, it takes more than casually flipping through a  textbook or half listening to an instructor. 

    Even if we were to give those textbooks and instructors our full attention, reading and listening alone aren’t enough to firmly cement new knowledge in our brains so we can  remember it in the long run. 

    Fortunately, there are several ways to improve learning retention. Here are ten strategies that work.


    1. Make training sessions interactive

    Did you know that video increases retention? That’s because most of our senses are involved in the learning process.

    TIP: Incorporating actual employees and leaders into videos is a great way to personalize the content while keeping it scalable (since a single video can easily be shared across the entire organization). 

    Interactivity is one of the cornerstones of an engaging and memorable learning experience. The more involved a learner is in an exercise, the more likely they are to retain and apply that information. 

    But videos aren’t the only way to encourage learner participation. Incorporating quizzes, surveys, Q & A sessions, challenges, and quizzes are great ways to make learning more interactive. Not only do these interactive elements promote engagement and retention, but they also help to measure performance.


    2. Make use of different formats

    Text-heavy online training that doesn’t contain a variety of content formats can get really boring fast.

    Including a range of content types will cater to different learner styles and preferences, keeping their attention. Here are some ideas:

    Slide presentations: 

    Good old PowerPoints are one of the most popular e-learning content types—and for good reason. Almost anyone can build a PPT deck and easily add graphics, videos, animations, and graphs to spice up the information. 

    Since this is such a popular format, learners are used to consuming this type of learning material. 

    It’s also quick and easy to create from scratch. Once you’ve created your presentation, all you have to do is upload it to your LMS.

    Alternatively, you can create it directly in the LMS. Some LMSs have content authoring capabilities (allowing you to create and edit presentations directly inside the platform), while others may integrate with Microsoft PowerPoint or Google Slides. Either way, remember: Less is more. Resist the urge to cram too much text on a slide, and don’t rely too heavily on this format. (PowerPoint fatigue is real!) 


    Videos are a great way to break up text and keep people engaged. But, as with any other format, if it’s too long, learners will lose interest. 

    Aim to keep videos under five minutes, focusing on one learning goal per video. To make your video content as reusable and ageless as possible, avoid referencing dates, seasons, and anything else that may date it. 

    Adding captions, subtitles, and annotations can make your videos more accessible and easy to follow.

    Finally, don’t be afraid to inject a bit of humor. A little humor can go a long way to keeping people engaged and entertained. (Laughing is allowed during learning, after all.)



    If you’re delivering software or product training, screen captures are essential. They’re invaluable visual aids when communicating complicated topics, like step-by-step instructions, side-by-side comparisons, and troubleshooting methods.

    Charts and graphs: 

    A picture really is worth a thousand words. It turns out that people learn better when words are accompanied by pictures. Including visual representation of data  (e.g., charts, graphs, and infographics) can help drive home key concepts. 


    If you’ve been paying attention to LMS trends, you’ve probably seen that gamification is getting a lot of attention. 

    Gamification creates a more engaging learning experience by incorporating game modules, accomplishment badges, and leaderboards. In addition, learners can monitor their progress and achievements on their learning dashboards. (You’d be surprised how much more willing your employees will be to participate in learning when it’s fun.)

    Memes and animated GIFs: 

    Who doesn’t love a good meme or GIF?

    Consider including them in your training and learning activities when they help to demonstrate your point and add some fun to the learning environment. 

    TIP: GIFs are a great way to create quick how-to videos. For example, an employee could take a few pictures of how to complete a procedure or how to use a certain product feature and then turn it into a video loop that colleagues could refer to


    Checklists are a quick and easy way to indicate what needs to be done. Whether it’s a series of steps in a workflow or process or a list of online courses a new hire has to complete for onboarding, checklists are a great tool to keep people on track. 


    3. Consider microlearning 

    Micro training, or microlearning, provides learners with small bursts of knowledge to study at their leisure. In the real world, where hectic schedules and short attention spans are the norm, microlearning has become a common and practical training method.

    It’s used for a wide variety of purposes (from employee onboarding to conformity assessment to skills training—and everything in between). 

    Microlearning content can take many forms, from a few words to a flashy, interactive video. Regardless of the format, it should always be concise.

    Examples of microlearning content include:

    • Text (phrases, short paragraphs)
    • Visual aids (images, infographics, graphs, illustrations)
    • Videos (of the short variety)
    • Audio (short clips of speech or music)
    • Quizzes
    • Interactions (drag and drop, matching, and ranking in order exercises)
    • Games (e.g., simple single-screen challenges)


    4. Encourage knowledge recollection

    The spacing effect, also known as the distributed practice effect, is the idea that studying in multiple sessions over time is more effective than cramming everything at once.

    In practice, this could look like covering one onboarding topic per week, building on the knowledge employees learned the previous week. That way, employees have time to reflect and apply what they’ve learned between sessions. As a result, they’re more likely to retain the information long-term.

    Incorporating periodic quizzes to review key concepts will reinforce learning and sidestep the dreaded forgetting curve. In the long run, this approach helps employees learn and retain information more efficiently, leading to enhanced results.


    5. Encourage knowledge sharing

    Knowledge sharing might not directly impact learning retention, but it allows people to share what they’ve learned and pass their knowledge on to others. Knowledge sharing is an essential component of a learning culture, as it helps move learners from the unconscious incompetence stage to the conscious incompetence stage.  

    Research shows that information sharing improves satisfaction rates, visibility, and time savings. 

    Many learning platforms support social learning and knowledge sharing with real-time access to information and resources.


    6. Use storytelling

    Storytelling helps learners connect to content and increases learner retention and recall. This results in a compelling and sticky learning experience. 

    L&D professionals can leverage this strategy to achieve particular learning goals.

    Here’s how you can use storytelling in training:

    • Create a context that is relevant to the learners
    • Connect learners to the subject in a meaningful way
    • Motivate action
    • Add a dash of interest to dull or complicated information
    • Allow for greater recall and retention

    Having said that, the impact of using storytelling as a learning technique largely depends on the tale you choose to tell.

    The story should add to (not detract from) the topic while providing a meaningful and accessible learning experience.


    7. Combine synchronous and asynchronous learning methods

    Because learning practitioners often don’t know which technologies are suitable for certain purposes, most choose a single tool (most commonly, a virtual classroom) and force-fit education into that technology. 

    But, just like a single piece of sports equipment won’t work for all sports, a single tool won’t work for all types of learning.

    That’s where blended learning comes in. By combining asynchronous and synchronous learning methods, you can reap the benefits of each one while minimizing the drawbacks. 

    For  example:

    • Learning with and from others through synchronous learning can help decrease the isolation generally associated with asynchronous learning.
    • The added flexibility provided by asynchronous features compensates for the inflexibility of live synchronous learning.
    • The inherent time constraints of synchronous learning can be solved by including asynchronous learning, which provides more time for in-depth processing.
    • Since asynchronous parts are always available, they may seem less urgent. However, combining them with synchronous elements can highlight their importance and make sure they aren’t overlooked. 

    Simply put,  borrowing the best from each learning method improves learning retention.

    8. Measure progress and deliver training that fills the gaps

    Regularly measuring learning metrics is essential to ensure your training programs meet individual and organizational needs.

    This includes monitoring individual, team, and company-wide learning progress and evaluating which training is popular and effective. A robust LMS automates this process, allowing you to pull data on how much time employees are spending on training and their overall performance. 

    Comparing the performance of employees who received extensive employee training versus those who didn’t provides valuable insights into the effectiveness of your training. It’s also worth investigating how learning availability and course completion affect employee attrition and retention. 

    Finally, gather employee feedback on learning availability, quality, scope, and effectiveness on a regular basis. You can do this by regularly sharing short polls on your LMS, asking employees to rate training modules, and sending out more extensive surveys every quarter.

    Don’t forget to keep an eye on Hermann Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve to see what previously learned notions and concepts were forgotten. That way, you can reiterate them through refresher training or retraining. 

    To sum up, measure what learners know and don’t know, evaluate what’s sticking and what’s not, and then deliver training to fill the gaps. Oh, and remember to tailor the content to help learners retain the forgettable concepts and master the subject.


    9. Listen to your learners’ needs and offer tailored learning experiences

    Just like patient-centered care, education should center around the learner. ​

    By listening to your learners’ preferences and identifying their strengths and weaknesses, you can build personalized learning experiences that cater to their needs.

    Doing so increases learning engagement, motivation, and, ultimately, retention. 

    You can tailor your instruction to the individual learner in two easy steps.

    #1 Conduct a targeted history

    Discovering key details about the learner, like their training level, prior experience, and personal interests, helps you tailor your instruction. 

    This shows learners you’re committed to their success, enhancing their motivation and confidence in the training.

    #2 Agree on a learning strategy

    Effective corporate training requires open communication and collaboration. This means being transparent about your expectations and how you can help them succeed. It’s also a good idea to ask for their input on their learning preferences, like if they prefer a certain review time.

    In addition, after trying different learning methods or styles, ask them for their feedback and follow up for more visibility.

    The answers to these questions can change depending on the trainee’s level, and addressing them early can lead to an easier transition into cooperative learning.

    In short, fostering a collaborative learning environment can empower employees to reach their goals. 


    10. Use a powerful Learning Management System (LMS) 

    LMS analytics and reporting provide insightful data on employee performance, progress, and behaviors. Organizations can use this to identify weak areas in their training plans.

    Essentially, it answers key questions, such as what e-learning courses and resources workers use the most. Knowing this is a great way to enhance learner engagement.

    LMS metrics don’t only offer insight into how to optimize the continuous learning process. They also give L&D teams a clear overview of all training activities in the organization.

    Teams can easily monitor goal progress, knowledge gains, return on investment (ROI), and other essential metrics.

    A powerful LMS makes it possible to execute strategies 1 – 9 by enabling organizations to:

    • Make training interactive
    • Use different course formats
    • Gamify learning
    • Support microlearning
    • Encourage knowledge recollection and sharing
    • Use storytelling to engage learners
    • Combine synch and asynch learning
    • Collect learner feedback

    Ultimately, an LMS allows organizations to deliver targeted, timely training content, which boosts learner engagement and helps employees retain critical messages. Plus, employees can revisit training content when they need to.

    Top LMSs, such as Docebo, come packed with tools and features to enhance the learning experience. As a result, your organization can deliver more regular, accessible, and impactful employee training.


    Wrapping up

    Organizations spend a lot of effort and money developing training content and programs. But if people don’t retain what they’ve learned, what’s the point? (It’s tough enough securing a decent training budget as it is without adding poor results.) 

    Employee training programs that recognize how humans retain (or forget) information and use strategies to combat this garner better results. That means designing content and programs that move learners through the learner process, helping them to retain and apply new knowledge. 

    Effective training programs can improve onboarding, increase employee engagement and retention, build employee confidence and competence, and foster a culture of continuous learning. This makes it easy to demonstrate the value of learning and its impact on the business. 


    Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

    Q1. How long does it take to retain information?

    People generally recall less than half of the information delivered in any training or session after one hour.

    Q2. What is the difference between short-term and long-term memory?

    Short-term memory is the ability to retain a tiny quantity of knowledge from a recent time period. In contrast, long-term memory refers to the ability to store memories for a prolonged period of time.

    Q3. Should I consider learning retention when training employees?

    Absolutely. Higher learning retention rates lead to enhanced performance and increased productivity. Therefore, it’s important to utilize training and assessment techniques that boost learning retention. 

    Practical or on-the-job training often garners higher learning retention than classroom activities, such as lectures—especially when learners are tested on the topic after instruction. 

    Q4. Can learning retention improve employee performance and retention? 

    Yes, employees who can enhance their abilities and learn new things are more likely to be engaged, happy, and productive.