A successful training program means much more than great learning materials, the perfect use of the latest technological tools or the willingness of trainees to develop professionally. Measuring training success goes down to ROI, but any return on investment is deeply connected to each employee’s performance. And performance rates can’t go up if employees don’t apply what they learn when real-life situations demand it.
A training program is truly successful if and only if employees are able to absorb the new information they learn, retain it, and recall it later, precisely when needed. If they can do this, their performance will improve, the ROI will be positive, and the organization will move forward.
Creating relevant training materials, making them visually appealing, including gamified elements, making sure everything renders well on any screen size — these are all tactics instructional designers use to increase learner’s chances of absorbing and retaining as much information as possible from a training session or another.
But no matter how well these tactics work, there’s something they can’t automatically solve: the fact that people naturally forget.
The forgetting curve
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. What we do know, however, is that people naturally forget. 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.
The forgetting curve is a widely accepted hypothesis that memory retention declines over time. This hypothesis is based on the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. According to him, forgetfulness depends on the strength of one’s memory, as well as on the amount of time that has passed since learning happened.
Information or knowledge people store within their brains is lost over time if they make no effort to retain it. With newly acquired information or knowledge, the forgetting curve theory shows that humans tend to halve their memories in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learning materials.
While things may not be crystal clear about why and how we forget — nor even about the forgetting curve — I doubt anyone can contradict the fact that we do forget many things throughout our lives even if we consciously and repeatedly review what we learn.
Fighting the forgetting curve with spaced repetition
There are plenty of factors that influence a person's ability to absorb, retain and recall new information, such as a good night's sleep, performing regular physical exercise, having a balanced diet or doing brain games. While these can lead to great results in terms of memory improvements in time for trainees, as a training instructor you have no control over them.
What you can control, however, is how you deliver the information you need to be learned. Applying spaced repetition is the magic sauce for improved retention rates.
Despite its enormous capabilities, the human brain needs time to absorb the information in the learning materials, sort it and process it, consolidate everything and build neural pathways to other related concepts.
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 maybe just a few hours, you need to intertwine some pieces of information between various courses.
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.
And now comes the practical part.
The role of an LMS in applying spaced repetition
The combination of your brainpower as an instructional designer — your knowledge of subject matters, pedagogy, web design, marketing, neuroscience, and so on — combined with the power of technology — parsing, sorting and making sense of huge amounts of data — is simply perfect. You need technology to analyze data and make the best decisions, and you can rest assured technology doesn’t have the shortcomings of the human brain.
You may forget to remind all your learners about a thing or another. But an LMS never forgets.
You can use various LMS features when applying spaced repetition through your training materials. You can create automatic notifications so that learners are delivered a certain learning module at a certain time. Heck, you can even create notifications so that you are reminded to do something in the future.
You can create rules so that learners are automatically enrolled in a new course after a certain period of time has passed since they finished another related one, and even repeat this rule after an even longer period of time. Or, you can create another rule so that learners cannot access a new module unless they prove they master the knowledge from a previous one.
While designing learning materials, you need to keep the content as succinct as possible. But sometimes, additional resources can be very useful. Using the simple search function in the LMS, you can find the most relevant keywords for each learning module and add links to extra resources as necessary. Even if learners won’t click on all of them, simply seeing the links will remind them of the recently acquired knowledge.
Whatever other features you have available in your company LMS that could be useful for including spaced repetition in your instructional materials, you can be certain technology won’t let you down. Unless you set it properly, that is.