Making Learning ‘Stickier’

Joe was shocked. He’d just analysed the impact over time of his learning programme on the performance of his team. ‘It’s as though the programme had been erased from the memories of those who had taken part. There’s been virtually no improvement at all,’ he opined. Yet at the time, when participants had written their evaluations, they’d given it wonderful feedback. All had spoken about how much they’d been engaged by the programme.

While Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark have defined learning as ‘a change in long-term memory’,[1]in the workplace, learning is likely to lead to the acquisition of knowledge, attitudes, skills and habits which are readily available from memory to use. The link, therefore, between memory and learning is fundamental. After all, one can’t have learnt something if it’s been forgotten! For Joe, the cruel reality was that, while his programme had been engaging, clearly little or no learning had actually taken place.

Ever wondered how to make new learning ‘stick’ better with those participating in the sessions you design or lead? Whether it’s a keynote, a multi-session learning programme or even your weekly team meeting, here are three evidence-based approaches that will maximise the chances that the learning covered in your sessions will stick:

Create multiple opportunities for deep thinking.

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham refers to memory as being ‘the residue of thought’.[2]In other words, if you want participants to remember new learning, it is crucial to create multiple opportunities for them to engage in thinking hard about it. This can be achieved through thought-provoking questions and the creation of opportunities for participants to, for example, compare and contrast different approaches, examine cause–effect relationships, analyse situations to spot mistakes, and consider how the new learning applies to their own roles.

Make time for reflection and consolidation

Too often when learning is ineffective, it has been found that participants haven’t been given structured opportunities to reflect on what they have learnt. This lack of opportunity for consolidation negatively impacts on how participants will apply the learning to their day-to-day work. As one course leader reflected, ‘I always assumed, wrongly, that participants went away and made time to evaluate their next steps independently.’ It is often the case, however, that back in the workplace the participants are usually too busy to do so. Allowing for natural pauses in the session, therefore, is crucially important as it enables learners to evaluate and get clarity on what they are going to start and stop doing, as a result of the programme, in order to improve their performance. It provides them with the necessary time and space to consolidate meaning around the new learning presented and to connect it to what they already know.

Ensure participants don’t receive too much new information at once.

We’ve probably all been on the receiving end of death-by-PowerPoint at some point in our working lives. It’s cognitive overload in a nutshell. George A. Miller identified that humans have a working memory which is fixed in size.[3]The working memory is where new information is processed: typically, the working memory of humans can retain between 5 and 9 chunks of newinformation (7 +/- 2). That’s why if someone gives you their mobile phone number, it’s hellishly difficult to remember it – regardless of how important it might be. There are, being 11, just too many digits! To ensure participants don’t suffer from cognitive overload, it is essential that new information is presented in a way that they can process. The best approach is always to be really clear on the new learning you want participants to remember, and to be realistic about how much new learning can be processed at any one time.

Taking into account how humans learn – as well as how they forget– can make thekey difference between the well-received course that quickly becomes forgotten, and the effective learning programme that leads to lasting performance improvement over time.

[1]Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark, ‘Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching’, Educational Psychologist, 41(2) (2006), 75–86 at 75.

[2]Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom(San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009), p. 54.

[3]G. A. Miller‘The MagicalNumber Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information’Psychological Review, 63(2) (1956): 81–97.