Five Steps to Protect Your Training With Reinforcement


Talent development professionals know the challenges of educating thousands of employees on a new product or skill set. But that’s just one part of the process. Next comes creating incentives that motivate employees to complete the course, and then you must ensure that employees retain this new knowledge so they can apply it to their jobs.

Think of these concepts as the training challenge, the incentive challenge, and the retention challenge.

It’s not uncommon for the talent development profession to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars addressing the training and incentive challenges, but then overlook the retention challenge entirely. In such cases, the forgetting curve begins to erode our hard-earned victories. The moment employees leave the classroom, their new knowledge drains away at a rapid pace. Within a few weeks, most of what they’ve learned disappears. That often results in a significant gap between learning and performance: What people learn doesn’t translate to improved job performance.

Corporate training success stories show that one of the most effective methods to tackle the retention challenge is to enroll employees in a training reinforcement plan as soon as they complete a learning program. Training reinforcement introduces carefully planned retention exercises (known as retrieval practices) so that learners retain knowledge and can apply it to their jobs.

The research

In the late 1800s, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the forgetting curve. Since then, researchers have repeatedly shown that people instantly start forgetting what they’ve just learned—as much as 70 percent within 24 hours.

This issue is evident in all kinds of settings, and corporate learning is no exception. Making matters worse, typical training conditions don’t support long-term knowledge retention, leaving employees with an “illusion of knowing” (or “illusion of mastery”). The strategies often used to accelerate learning during training (for example, massing practice to minimize the time spent away from work, providing frequent feedback, and keeping the conditions of practice constant) are proved to be some of the worst techniques for long-term learning.

Therefore, the challenge to improve how we learn is this: Discover a way to interrupt the forgetting process and overcome the illusion of knowing.
The solution: Training reinforcement

We’re in luck. Cognitive psychologists have spent more than a century researching what works best for ensuring long-term learning retention. Studies show that effort is the key to deep, comprehensive, durable learning and the ability to transform knowledge into real-life actions. The more effortful and stimulating the learning process, the better we internalize new knowledge and the easier it is for us to recall and use that knowledge outside the initial training context.

That’s why a training reinforcement plan that uses retrieval practices is so effective. The primary goal of a training reinforcement plan is to foster long-term knowledge retention and understanding. It should prompt learners to actively recall and retrieve what they were taught by using short retrieval practices (mainly quizzes, but possibly also flashcards, smart tips, and microlearning modules). Every time we call up a memory, we reinforce a mental route in our mind and, therefore, increase our ability to connect what we know with what we can do. Even a single retrieval practice can produce significant improvements in retention.

The first thing you need to do is determine which corporate training programs can best benefit from a reinforcement dimension. Then you define a basic structure, choose a delivery method, and create the content. It’s not as complicated as you might think.
Here are five practical steps to get you started.

Prioritize your programs

For best results, prioritize which of your training programs need reinforcement based on three factors:

  • Criticality—which programs are most valuable to your company?
  • Cost—which programs are the most resource-intensive, in terms of both actual and opportunity costs?
  • Reach—which programs have the largest number of target trainees?

By focusing on those characteristics, you maximize your training reinforcement investment and put yourself in a better position to demonstrate value to executives.

Choose the right reinforcement structure
Your training reinforcement plan should start right after the initial training program ends and last no more than six weeks (depending on your content). Ideally, each session is five to 10 minutes in length and offered two to three times per week. Overwhelming your learners will only hurt your chances of success.
Choose the delivery method
Although you have several options for delivering training reinforcement content, mobile is an important one to consider. Native mobile apps make it easy and cost-effective to implement learning reinforcement in a corporate setting because they:

  • are tailored to the modern learner, offering a strong user experience and learner engagement
  • provide offline access to learning content
  • can work in step with cloud technologies to carve out intelligent, customized learning paths that respond instantly to the changing needs of individual employees
  • support a rapid development cycle
  • collect data at a granular level, both for real-time analytics and to provide individualized coaching opportunities.

Craft results-driven content

Content will make or break your training reinforcement plan. Excellent structure and scheduling with mediocre content creates the perfect storm for a stalled reinforcement plan.

The good news is that developing effective reinforcement content doesn’t need to be complex or time consuming. The idea isn’t to rehash everything that’s been taught in an initial course. To be effective, your plan needs to reinforce core information that is most fundamental to long-term retention and job performance. You can accomplish that in four steps.

First, identify core competencies. Focus on the most critical knowledge your employees need to transfer to their everyday jobs.
Second, develop a series of quizzes with a solid question bank, because quizzes are one of the best forms of retrieval practice. Your question bank needs to have several items for each competency covered in your reinforcement plan. Scenario-based questions, such as “What would you do in this situation?” are a particularly effective—especially when they’re challenging. Retrieval practices need to be effortful to be effective (but not overwhelming, of course).

Third, use additional bite-size learning resources. These might include flashcards or microlearning modules to enrich your learners’ reinforcement experience.

Last, use metrics and a control group to first sell the effectiveness of your reinforcement plan, and then to fine-tune as you go.

Start small, but start

Training reinforcement needs to become an integral part of your learning investments. Consider running a simple and inexpensive pilot to test the waters. By using analytics, you can measure and demonstrate how much you have increased the return on your training. That way, you would have tackled the forgetting curve head-on and, more importantly, you’ll no longer have to guess how your employees perform after training.

If you’d like to learn more about learning reinforcement, doing some extra reading is always a good idea. For a comprehensive overview on the latest research around durable learning and retention, read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roedinger, and Mark McDaniel.

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