Do you remember how to apply Pythagoras’ theorem? What about the chemical formula for coffee? Or the capital city of Armenia? I used to know these all — and more.

Used to is a very important keyword here. All I remember now about Pythagoras’ theorem is that it must involve a triangle. The chemical formula for coffee definitely has a beehive-like structure, but I don’t know the exact shape and neither the elements that create it. As for the capital city of Armenia, I’m sure it is a very nice city in or near the Caucasus Mountains, but I can’t name it.

I used to know all these things, and I liked learning them. But this happened when I got grades for knowing stuff like this. Today I can get good reviews for my work without having to calculate triangle sides, I can drink coffee without knowing its chemical formula, and I can generally live my life without having to pinpoint Yerevan on a map. Thanks God for Google, right?

People naturally forget

Memory works in intricate ways. There are plenty of aspects of the human brain and how we remember things that even the most brilliant minds of scientists on this planet still don’t know. The algorithms the brain uses to make us remember something involve variables like time, sensitive triggers, neural connections, and a bunch of other things related to information, but the exact details are still to be filled in.

Since I haven’t had to pass a geometry, chemistry, or geography test in years, my brain placed these pieces of information in a not-that-important category. If my brain was like a huge storage deposit, there would be rust and spiderwebs around this category of information, I’m sure. So it’s only a matter of time until I forget what’s in it.

People naturally forget. It happens all the time, with all sorts of information that becomes not-that-important. Even though the brain seems to offer infinite storage capacity, the retrieval of some pieces of information can sometimes be hard, or even impossible for us.

Forgetfulness and workplace learning

Although sometimes employers seem to consider their employees as simple cogs in a system, employees are people — and people naturally forget. They forget to change the paper in the printer, they forget to send an email, they forget to add some numbers in a monthly report, they forget what they learn in formal training courses. They forget a lot of things because they are busy prioritizing and doing a million of other things.

If we zoom in on workplace training, the biggest barrier employees encounter when they can’t remember what they learn is a lack of attention during the course. If learners can’t pay attention when absorbing new information related to their jobs, they’ll inevitably have low retention rates. Office stress, outside noises, or personal issues can all cause employees to lose focus over the learning materials.

There are plenty of other factors that influence a person’s ability to pay attention to new information, and there are plenty of solutions to achieve great retention rates as well. These include:

  • a good night’s sleep;
  • regular physical exercise;
  • a balanced diet;
  • doing brain games (like sudoku, puzzles, crosswords).

While these can lead to great results in terms of memory improvements in time, training instructors have no control over them. It all comes down to the individual level of each employee to perform these activities.

5 tricks to help learners better remember courses

However, there are some tricks that instructional designers can use when creating their courses — be they traditional or online — that respond to the needs of learners and stimulate their memory.

  1. Spaced repetition

    People naturally forget. See what I did here? It’s the fourth time I used this exact phrase in the content of this article. Perhaps tomorrow you won’t remember the details of this post, but there are better chances that you’ll remember that people naturally forget.

    Spaced repetition in the context of training courses means to sprinkle the same idea in various parts of the course. You can state it at the beginning, repeat it throughout the course in more than one learning module, and again in the closing part. You can even go a step further and do the same for each main idea in each lesson of the course.

    But most importantly, make sure to repeat the same piece of information over time if you want your learners to remember it. Repeat it over a week, or even a few months. If employees need a number of weeks to finish a course, repeating something throughout it could work. But if the course can be done in a day or two, or maybe a few hours, you need to intertwine some pieces of information between various courses. The best example is a series of courses, from beginner level to more advanced ones: the learner can’t take a second-tile course unless they prove they have mastered the first-tile course.

    When learners encounter the same piece of information over and over in their learning materials, they’ll have increased chances to later remember that piece of information.

  2. Use mnemonics

    Mnemonics are memory devices that help learners recall larger pieces of information. The best examples of mnemonics are acronyms, acrostics, chunking, and imagery association:

    • Acronyms are words created by the first letter of each word that has to be remembered. For example, each letter of the word HOMES stands for the first letter of each of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
    • Acrostics are phrases, and the first letter in each word in them stands for the information one needs to remember. Keeping the Great Lakes example, each first letter of the words in the phrase SuperMan Helps Every One stands for each of the lakes, from West to East: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario.
    • When acronyms or acrostics can’t do the trick, chunking and organizing a lot of information makes it easier to remember it. When you share your phone number with someone, you don’t just say a 10-figure number; you chunk it into parts of three or four figures. This makes it easier for the other person to get it correctly.
    • Imagery association is another powerful mnemonic. The weirder the associated image with the piece of information that must be learned, the better. A hexagon is the weird connection between bees and coffee. Bees create beehives, which have hexagonal shapes; the chemical formula for coffee also has the shape of a hexagon in it. I may not remember the elements of the formula, but I doubt I’ll ever forget the connecting hexagon.

    The professional world and training courses offer plenty of opportunities to include mnemonics in learning materials. Even color coding the chapters and adding tags as simple symbols can help employees have better retention rates for what they learn.

  3. Add music

    Because music is magic. The human brain is attuned to sound patterns, and music and rhymes are proven to help memory retention. That’s why earworms exist. And that’s why people sing poems.

    But you don’t have to be the next Homer and transform your courses’ content into a rhyming Odyssey for training. You can just include wordplay and sounds in your lessons: a rhyme here, a song there, and even background music to reduce stress. Just remember not to overdo things.

    When learners are calm they can focus better, and maybe come up with their own associations, rhymes, and memory tricks for improved retention rates.

  4. Encourage social collaboration

    If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to teach people. Employees should be encouraged to share their knowledge, ask questions freely, answer those of others by explaining and presenting what they know, and work together to find solutions. Sometimes learning is an individual process, but the workplace is synonym with teamwork.

    As an instructor, you should encourage communication and collaboration between learners as much as possible, through any channel: on-the-spot, face-to-face, or online, through groups and chat rooms within the LMS used for training, or any other web collaboration tool.

    When people receive instant feedback for their learning queries, they’ll better absorb and later remember the new information.

  5. Let learners experience Aha! moments

    You could spend hours on end talking about the subject of your course because you’re obviously passionate about it. But if for some reason or another your learners are not interested in what you have to say, most of your talking will be in vain.

    Many employees attend training programs just because they have to. But this doesn’t mean that courses shouldn’t be captivating enough. In fact, learning materials should be structured in such a way that they stir the interest of employees and make them want to learn more. That’s why instructors should have extra resources available, either in a central repository, and/or attached to each lesson, for all learners to explore each topic as in depth as they want.

    When learners find something interesting, they’ll want to know more about it. And when they are determined to find more information on what interests them, they’ll have more Aha! moments and they’ll better retain what they learn. This is what experts also refer to as the pull technique — when learners pull knowledge from the instructor — which is the opposite of the push technique — when educators push knowledge to learners.

Final thoughts

The whole purpose of workplace training is to help learners recall as much new information as possible, and use it appropriately when real life situations demand it.

Since employees have to actually perform their jobs besides workplace learning, they are not always in the best mental state to pay attention to what happens during training courses. Therefore, instructional designers who include tricks like spaced repetition, mnemonics, music, social collaboration, or the pull technique in their training programs improve the chances of employees to better remember what they learn.

Author: Livia M

Livia is the main online voice of MATRIX by CYPHER LEARNING. She writes about workplace learning and L&D strategies for businesses, as well as other training and e-learning related subjects.