Strategies To Make Learning Stick

Learning retention must be approached through the holistic integration of learning methodologies with how people actually learn in the workplace.

The U.S. has made a tremendous commitment to training. Training magazine’s 2017 U.S. Training Industry Report shows that U.S. businesses spent $93.65 billion to train their employees. That equates to an average of $1,075 per learner across all industries. But the perception is that training often does not yield the intended results, and research on the transfer of training to the job indicates that 80 percent of the learning is not applied to the work.

The consequences are dire for U.S. competitiveness. The St. Louis Federal Reserve reports that the U.S., once known for having the best-trained and educated workforce in the world, has lost much of its lead. In addition, the 2016 Future of Jobs Report issued by the World Economic Forum, predicts that 35 percent of core work-related skills will change by 2020. If Training professionals do not change our approach, U.S. business will no longer have the trained workforce necessary to win in the global market.

Clues about how to enhance learning retention have been around since the 1880s, when Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted his groundbreaking studies on “forgetting.” Since Ebbinghaus, there have been numerous studies that found widely fluctuating rates of forgetting. Will Thalheimer’s 2010 review of the research showed examples such as these:

  • People forget 40 percent of what they've learned in 20 minutes and 77 percent of what they've learned in six days.
  • People forget 50 to 80 percent of what they've learned after one day.
  • People forget 90 percent after one month.

While there will be disagreement about exactly how much is forgotten, the significant magnitude of the effect is indisputable. If learners simply retained more of what they learned, what might it mean for individual and organizational performance?


Trainers know how to design and deliver the formal training people will need to remain competitive in the emerging global workplace. But individuals learn what they need to know in order to be successful in a number of different ways, so formal training is not enough.

Learning retention must be approached through the holistic integration of learning methodologies with how people actually learn in the workplace.

In their article, “Combat Knowledge Decay in the Workplace,” Alice Kim and Carol Leaman outline three of the most significant approaches to maximizing learning retention:

  • Meaning, which is the creation of a relevant connection so the knowledge fits into a context that makes sense and is easy for the learner to understand.
  • Spacing the training, sometimes called interval reinforcement.
  • Retrieval of the knowledge and skill, often termed testing.

Incorporating these methods into a formal training intervention is critical to building understanding of the knowledge and skills that are the reason for the training—and key to increasing the amount of learning people remember after the training.


The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) identified how people learn what they need to know in order to be successful on the job through a combination of three methodologies, known as 70:20:10. These are:

  • Informal, on-the-job, experience-based projects and practice account for approximately 70 percent of what you need to know in order to be successful.
  • Coaching, mentoring, and developing through others account for 20 percent.
  • Formal learning interventions and structured courses account for the remaining 10 percent.

Training professionals traditionally focus on learning interventions (the formal 10 percent). The payoff happens when the person is back on the job doing the work (the informal 70 percent) and having conversations (the coaching 20 percent). The learning is reinforced, strengthened, and retained when the three learning retention approaches— meaning, spacing, and testing—are integrated with the day-to-day work.

Meaning is critical to retention. But what is meaningful to one person often is perceived differently by another person. This is where the manager's insight and support become important because they can make the application of the learning personal. Jason Wright, in a recent article, noted how personalized learning improves a learner's ability to retain information, increases engagement, and motivates the participant to apply the concepts to difficult issues (

Work by Nik Kinley and Shlomo Ben-Hur in a recent article in MITSloan Management Review emphasizes that managers are key to productive employee development because they create the context for how learning applies to the work and the individual’s development.

Clearly, the boss factor makes a difference. If the manager articulates why the content is important and helps to envision how it is used and applied on the job, then the meaning is high and there will be significant retention of the knowledge and skill.

Spacing is the repeated periodic review of the information and knowledge over time. Building this approach into the fabric of the work helps individuals make connections to existing knowledge, resulting in improved use of the information in new situations.

Spacing is particularly effective when the review occurs simultaneously with the need to use the knowledge or skill. Clearly, application in relevant situations helps people remember. On-the-job opportunities for spacing occur during project reviews, preparation for key events such as delivering a performance appraisal or a sales presentation, or providing guidance during the delegation of a critical responsibility. Similarly, a mentoring discussion might revisit a previous conversation, reinforcing the topic. Finally, the formal learning can be integrated with on-the-job activities so spacing builds advanced skills through a series of formal learning interventions that evolve over time.

Retrieval of knowledge frequently is known as the testing effect. Remember flashcards when you were young, and how they helped you learn arithmetic or a foreign language or memorize the dialogue for the school play? Being tested and retrieving the knowledge helps retention. Retrieval happens in the quizzing that is part of “learning by doing” when rehearsing for a critical presentation. It is also part of the daily rhythm in technical fields where specific knowledge is foundational to higher-order thinking. Retrieval is a frequent methodology when a criterion of knowledge or performance must be demonstrated, such as in compliance training, demonstration of the skill during simulations, or when testing is embedded into e-learning.

Integrating the Center for Creative Leadership’s 70:20:10 approach with the techniques of meaning, spacing, and retrieval creates a holistic approach that maximizes the retention of learning.


The trainer’s job starts with ensuring that each course is characterized by strong instructional design, which is the foundation to maximize learning retention—the 10 percent. But it doesn’t stop there.

The trainer must partner with learners’ managers and the organization to create a process that is both holistic and personal in order to ensure participants re-engage with the learning through their work (the 70 percent), their discussions with key people (the 20 percent), or through a logical next step in the formal learning progression (back to the 10 percent).

Through the Training professional’s efforts, each person in the organization can maximize the retention of the knowledge and skills he or she learned. Improving the retention of learning is a significant step toward building the trained workforce necessary to win in the global market.

Ross Tartell, Ph.D., is currently adjunct associate professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University. Dr. Tartell also consults in the areas of learning and development, talent planning, and organization development. He received his M.B.A. in Management and his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Columbia University. He formerly served as Technical Training and Communications Manager – North America at GE Capital Real Estate.


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