Leadership Perspectives

Six Ways to Making Learning Stick (or How to Get Your Money’s Worth from Developmental Training)

March 1, 2012

Developmental training is a process, not an event.

What leaders do to support training initiatives will determine, more than anything else, whether learning is retained after the initial training event.  Unsupported, days spent in developmental training quickly turn into enjoyable boondoggles that are quickly forgotten.

This week, I presented a proposal to train an organization’s managers in communication skills.  One of the organization’s senior leaders raised a concern that a lot of training is quickly forgotten after the learning event.  He wanted to know how I could determine if what I was teaching was “sticking” and what I did if I sensed that it was not.

A good trainer knows how to adapt on the fly.  We watch the participants, assess their engagement, and depart from the lesson plan, if necessary, to make the training effective.  We administer evaluations at the end of the training to determine if knowledge transfer has occurred, we ask participants to decide how they will put their learning to work right away, and we suggest ways that the participants can continue their own learning.  All of these things help make learning “sticky.”

But no matter how perceptive and flexible the training facilitator is, it is ultimately the organizational leader (or leaders) that determine whether learning is retained.

This is because real learning occurs over time and with repetition.  Using the analogy of cramming for an exam, when we take in a lot of information very quickly, we might do alright in the short term – and pass the exam – but not really learn on a deeper level and not retain the knowledge.

Leaders can support the learning by inculcating it over time in a number of ways:

Talk about the training.  When deciding what is important, folks take their cue from their leaders.  If the leader sends her managers to a class to learn how to better motivate others but, in the rush of everyday fire-fighting, forgets to talk about and review the concepts that were learned, employees will assume the training was unimportant.

Ask questions about the material.  When employees answer questions about what they have learned and give their opinions about new information, the process helps improve retention and reinforce learning.

Have employees present what they have learned to others.  Similarly, presenting lessons learned to others not only shares new knowledge across the organization but helps the presenter think more deeply about the material.

Foster ownership of new concepts.  Learning is enhanced when it is personalized.  Encourage employees to assimilate what they have learned by identifying specific applications of the new knowledge in their particular situation.

Role model the concepts.  If the learners in the organization have just been introduced to listening skills, letting employees see the leader employing those skills is a great way to reinforce learning.  Catching oneself not using a skill and calling that fact out publicly is almost as effective.  This looks like “I’m sorry, Charlie.  I know that watching my Smartphone is not a good way to show you that I am listening to you.  Let me try again.”

Ask the facilitator to review.  When I work with a group repeatedly, I build in a review of previous material.  Sometimes I do this as a scheduled review session at the beginning of the next training event.  Other times, I work a review of previous concepts into the new material.

Note that while repetition by the facilitator is a best practice, it will not by itself ensure retention of learning.  Learners must be encouraged to review, apply, and consider new knowledge over time in order for that knowledge to be fully integrated. No one-day facilitator is going to do that as effectively as an every-day leader.

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