Five Ways to Improve Learning Retention and Recall

How do you influence behavior change that is observable? Here are five ways to improve your learner's ability before, during, and after a learning experience. They are:

  1. Chunk Information
  2. Delay Reinforcement
  3. Make It Relevant
  4. Create “At Stake” Scenarios
  5. Check-In and Assess the Change

1. Give the information in chunks
‘Chunking’ is the process of organizing information into meaningful groups. The premise behind chunking is that individuals can only absorb a few concepts at a time before going into information overload. The saying "Tell them three things" comes from the widely understood practice that people can best retain new information if it doesn't exceed three things. If you have five or ten points, organize them into no more than three groups. This simple practice will assist in communicating the larger set of information and make it possible for the listener to better recall the big picture. For example, the "Five ways to improve learning retention" can fall under three categories:

  • Before Learning: Chunk
  • During Learning: Reinforce; Make Relevant
  • After Learning: What's At Stake; Assess

Before, During and After Learning are ‘chunkable’ groups that become the context for the five elements and make it simpler for the learner to recall the details that belong in each group.

2. Create delayed reinforcement opportunities to help recall new skills
Another way of saying this is to "make people practice at different intervals." There are two ways to create delayed reinforcement. One is to ask people to rehearse or recall new information soon after a learning experience and the second is to have them perform the same recall tasks with more space between the learning and the recall event (a few days or a week apart).

The best approach is to use a combination of short, medium and long-term spacing to reinforce the new behavior. For example, give your learners an exercise after a break in the program, send them home with something to complete in twenty-four hours, and bring them together in two weeks to practice the skills again. This simple combination of delayed reinforcement will go a long way in people's ability to perform new skills on the job.

3. Use relevant business scenarios in the learning process
Retention is about being able to perform new tasks in real situations over time. By having people learn new skills that relate to an actual business need, you help them bridge the gap between the artificial world of training and their real-world workplace setting.

The environment in which people learn can also play a role when it comes to relevance. This is why web-based training can be a useful method, not just from a cost-effectiveness point of view, but because learners can practice new behaviors in the environment in which they are expected to perform them.

4. For learning to stick, something must be “at stake”
Once people depart the formal confines of the classroom, the gravitational pull back to old ways of doing things will cause new behavior to end up just being a good idea. Learning requires repetition, otherwise known as practice, and there needs to be incentives for people to stay in their learning process.

Management needs to provide these rewards or consequences so that individuals are encouraged to make these new behaviors permanent. Incentives like public recognition, increased responsibility, time off for learning, being taken to lunch, a raise; these are just a few examples of how to say to your employees “we encourage learning”. Start with these positive reinforcements. If they don’t work, you may need consequences that people want to avoid – loss of responsibilities, publicly missing a deadline, or a loss of a raise due to insufficiently satisfying new behavior requirements.

Your employees need to be held accountable, and with proper incentives, will often rise to the occasion.

5. Check-in with people and measure the change
One of the least performed practices in the training process is checking in with learners after their formal learning. The minute participants leave the face-to-face portion of their learning, the opportunity to encourage and reinforce new behavior gets lost. The simple act of reaching out three months later and asking, "What can you do now that you couldn't do three months ago?" can serve to reconnect the learners with where their learning stopped, and can be the spark to reignite the reinforcement of new behaviors. Like a lighter, sometimes you have to flick it three or four times before it stays lit on its own.


It is critical to take the time to see if there are observable new behaviors as a result of learning efforts. If you can't point to any, you need to ask yourself, “Was the learning experience really worth the cost and time?” I think not. This, in itself, will reveal much about the distance between the means you are taking to train and the results you are trying to produce.