Knowledge retention is an uphill battle

More engagement results in more exposure to learning content and more knowledge retained!

We live in the golden age of information and knowledge. All kinds of information fight it out each day for our attention, and tons of them essentially get it – and usually not the best ones.

It’s no surprise that we have difficulty in remembering all those things that we really need to remember, even more so, the job-related knowledge that’s necessary for our normal lives. What we all lack is “knowledge retention”, a term that fundamentally delineates our capability to recall what we have learnt.

Our brains are wired to forget. And all the information we receive may not be needed beyond the immediate situation or moment. The memory is basically the process of inputting (encoding), organising (storing) and accessing (recalling) information or data. Our brains work through cells and their networks to other cells. When we have a new thought, like “a pink elephant wearing a tutu,” so a neuron for that particular thought forms and shapes connections to other related neurons in our brains. As the neurons get connected, they are triggered, and electricity shoots up across the neuron and reinforces it. But if no added electricity skyrockets across that neuron, the linking dendrites start weakening instantly, and that neuron can wane within 20 minutes of first forming.

Knowledge retention is an uphill battle

We encrypt a lot of information, but a portion of information will have fewer influences if we cannot attach it to a current brain edifice. That is why an established technique for learning concepts and thoughts is to link it to and build off of more solid and real-time or familiar notions.

Research by the National Training Laboratory shows that how material is offered can have a considerable effect on retention levels. For example, pure lecturing only leads to a retention rate of just 5%, while active learning methods lead to 90% retention of material.
Thus, it’s up to the training facilitators, instructional designers and reporting managers to support learners to optimise their knowledge retention and there are various tactics which can be used in deliverables to strengthen the learning process.

Defining knowledge retention

Knowledge retention is the course of absorbing information and eventually retaining the information over time. If you learned something in the past or just yesterday and have “disremembered” it today, then you have failed to recall the knowledge, learning or information and the Forgetting Curve has demanded another prey. Fortunately, certain mechanisms can be used in the learning process to help support your retention aptitude.

Traditional memorisation techniques leaned on approaches such as the rote technique, which is a method of learning through repetition and is not a learner-engaging technique. Whilst these techniques may not be effective, driving towards learner engagement is the best way to encourage learners to retain information.

Knowledge retention at a glimpse

It’s quite easy to forget what we learnt:

• After an hour, people hold only half of the information presented to them;
• After one day, people forget more than 70% of everything they have learned; and
• After a week, people forget 90% of the information of their learning session.

Knowledge retention tools and techniques

Streamline and simplify content: It’s all about designing learning content around fundamental objectives and messages that are chunked into logical flows. Thus, keeping the training material concentrated is a must, but on the other hand keeping it simple is also significant. Learners are not just learning responsibility, they have a lot of other stuff on their plates such as impending deadlines, job-related stuff and busy personal lives, etc. They always don’t have the patience and time to patiently sit down and interpret complicated verbosity and convoluted sentences. Nor would they be inclined to see and comprehend mathematical formulae again in learning sessions. Hence, if you need to explain an idea, concept or learning, elucidate it as simply as you can. Better, if you can say it with a video or a picture, do so, as a picture is worth “a thousand words”. Imagine what a video would be. They can be more appealing than streams of text.

Learning environment and playful content: We learn best when we’re more engaged. And we’re more engaged when we’re not bored, when we are competing with others and when the learning environment becomes interactive. Apart from matching the learning environment to the working environment, helping learners visualise successfully performing the task makes learning appealing. Again, adding an element of amusement and fun in your training shouldn’t be challenging, even if you are not a professional, , some interesting pictures, light jokes, relevant multimedia, can all raise the engagement aspect of your training content and delivery.

Involving learners: Get learners actively participating by using group discussion, practice or coaching or sharing with colleagues. Having learners build their “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) as a discussion and teams building strategies or tools to use back on the job can help increase knowledge retention.

Stimulating multiple senses: Add images or visuals to the audio as well as elements like taste, touch or smell (VAKOG), when possible. Again, matching the learning milieu to the working situation, or helping learners envisage successfully performing the task with the help of the learning session can significantly impact on the learning retention of a learner.

Efficiently engage emotions: Our brains hurriedly prioritise each new piece of information received: primarily for survival and safety, then subsequently for emotion, and eventually for meaning. Thus emotional messages, ideas and thoughts last far lengthier than strictly informational messages. Use evocative images and stories, and embed testimony or other videos that engage the learner and evoke an emotional response.

Exploiting newness: People have a natural tendency to pay attention to things that astonish them. A unique image leaves a lasting impression on the learner for days to come. Hence, considering making a surprise in an activity that can help challenge learners’ assumptions and help make the learning environment engaging. These are called surprises jolts.

Using repetition and spacing: Research shows that repeated recall of information increases retention to about 80 percent. The single most vital contributor to knowledge retention is putting what one has learned into practice. Either you use it or lose it. In the learning session, this means presenting each concept and then reinforcing it with pertinent exercises, discussions, storytelling, games and activities. The best method is for learners to have a post-course knowledge retention discussion or conversation with other participants about how they intend to use new skills. Integrating content with appropriate activities throughout the learning programme for reflection and sharing can help support better learning retention.

Use of visuals and images: It is said that “seeing is believing”. Eighty-three percent of our brains process visual data. Diagrams help us see relationships in data. So, using images and visuals for your learning programmes and sessions is not just about pulling down a photograph and putting across the learning content. The images need to depict meaning, motivate the audience and create engagement. The images need to catch the eye of the learner, stimulate or educate him/her, and help in getting connected with content ultimately effecting learning.

Campaign learning style: Campaign method of learning is a sort of learning which depends on allocating bite-sized content on a regular interludes, with one strong end objective. This sort of training can be provided via diverse methods across a set period of time. The release of content at set breaks can create a sense of enthusiasm and anticipation amongst participants. A campaign learning can comprise of everything starting from quizzes, videos, to blogs, and much more.

Soap opera learning: Soap opera learning is an immeasurably effective method of retaining knowledge, as this learning tactic offers a counter-balance to our ever shrinking attention spans. The famous Forgetting Curve depicts, after seven days of our learning intervention, we forget 90% of what we’ve learnt. It’s easy to see this figure dwindling further with so many modern-day interruptions and distractions. Moreover, due to the busy schedule of modern learners, we’re only able to dedicate 1% of our working week to learning, which comes to just 4.8 minutes a day. Soap opera learning responds to this by making learning more consumable and edible. By distribution learning content via short video clips or in bites, we can deliver microlearning in its most popular and effective format.

Furthermore, employees or training participants are 75% more likely to watch and understand a video rather than to see or read text. Thus, microlearning and the usage of video within the training content can be a brilliant approach to keep within the knowledge retention toolbox.

Attention on practice and habits Practising by definition requires repetition. The training participants need abundant hands-on repetition to build muscle memory and establish strong habits to keep the learning lively and retain knowledge. Approximately, 40% of our daily activities are habitual, and research shows that, in times of strain, people will act according to the habits they have established through practice. Practice and repetition also need to be observed and monitored until a new habit is fully formed so that, when people inexorably have to fall back on a routine behaviour, they will have reliable and safe habits.

Providing support and motivation Putting time and energy into building skills and habits requires both internal and external motivation. A facilitator needs to plant the seeds for inner motivation in the learning session by talking about the significant reasons why the participants are being trained and the professional and personal value they will obtain when they learn, practise and master the new skills. At the same time, external motivation needs to come from outside of the learning session with appropriate guidance and positive feedback from supervisors/seniors for applying the new learning correctly.


Knowledge retention has always been an uphill battle, as Hermann Ebbinghaus proved all those years ago. We can’t help but think that it’s become even harder to absorb information as technology has become more readily available and the number of distractions in our lives has increased. Today, the streaming sites, the internet, social media and catch-up TV, in general have reduced our focus, consequently dwindling our power to retain knowledge and information.

The most vital battle against forgetfulness is engagement. Learning needs to be more engaging and encouraging and this in turn will have an impact on the amount of knowledge the learner retains. Learning or knowledge retention is a result of aiding the human memory in its encoding, storage and recall functions and can be impacted by having a veracious learning objective. Varying the tools and methods with which we design the content and the environment where we deliver content and most importantly have relevant content can help learners’ brains retain and remember learnings and practise the same.

Dr Ajit Kumar Kar is the Senior Manager In Charge (Learning and Development) at Indian Metals and Ferro Alloys Ltd, in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India.


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