Learning Needs to Be Simple Enough to Make It Stick

By Staff Report

May. 22, 2012

Have you taken a class, gone through a webinar or completed an online module more than a week ago? Quick—don’t check your notes or review the syllabus—what do you remember?

My guess is the more complex and detailed the topic the less likely it is you’ll recall what you were taught. If you’ve only used the information once and heard little or nothing about it since, you’ll likely remember less. That’s how perception, memory and learning work.

In the workplace, when we try to teach concepts like welcoming concerns, non-retaliation or other compliance topics, we often don’t match how we teach to how we learn. No wonder so much is either ignored or forgotten and never applied.

There is a learning revolution unfolding right in front of us driven by amazing new technologies. The daily flood of ideas and products is itself nearly overwhelming. But we’ll make an epic blunder if we assume that simply adopting them will lead to increased absorption. New technologies and learning products have to address how we process and apply learning to be effective. Here are some principles to remember.

• We are most likely to remember something attached to an experience that happens to us or which is personally meaningful. That’s why training on actions we are supposed to take and principles we must apply has to be experiential and positioned in a way that matters to us as learners. Content that is not important to us is just not as well remembered as that which is important. That’s also why direct leadership support and modeling is so critical. If information is meaningful to our leaders based on what they say and do on the job, it is likely to be meaningful to us. Leadership support in the form of communication and consistent actions is part of what makes learning sustainable.


• Our ability to pay attention is limited. We literally take in a lot less information than is transmitted to us. We can only absorb so much even in the context of highly charged experiences. Lots of details still fit through the cracks in our attention. Let’s assume we are able to actually take in 60 percent the information we are given in a one-hour class. Distractions and trying to keep up with what we’re hearing and seeing in the moment drain our ability to perceive the other 40 percent. Flood someone with tons of data devoid of personal significance and they’ll absorb a smaller amount. This is part of the lesson of the Invisible Gorilla, a book written by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in the 1990s, about cognition. Check out the website, watch a few of the video demonstrations and you’ll see how limited our abilities are to perceive events right in front of us.

Third, we remember only a fraction of the information we receive. There is a dramatic downward slope which tracks length of time against what you remember. The more time passes the less you recall. Let’s assume two weeks after a training event you only remember 50 percent of what you were taught [Read Moon Walking with Einstein by Joshua Foer to learn more about this.] Link that to what you originally perceived [60 percent]. The result: two weeks after a training event you may only recall 30 percent of what you were taught. Over time, that percentage will continue to decline. That’s why reinforcement and leadership reminders are so critical.


Put all this together and it explains the power of our mantra for learning: Make it Matter. Make it Simple. Make it Stick. Applying that simple phrase to any learning subject topic will help translate your training into enduring behavioral and cultural change.

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