Don’t Risk Confusing Retain with Train

Posted on Posted in CEO Insights, Change Management, Learning Strategies, Science of Learning

Having a wrong objective can easily lead to a wrong result. This is often the case whenever companies engage employees in knowledge transfer of new systems or processes. A project implementation team’s goal is often to ensure that everyone “goes through the training”. Success is proclaimed when completed. But there is much more.

Training is the first part of a 3-step process: Train – Retain – Use. Retaining is the act of remembering, and most important, recalling the knowledge or skill that a person has acquired in the learning process. I’ve talked in the past about Memory Decay (we forget 80% of what we learn within two weeks), a very well-documented phenomenon. If all we do is run classes or conduct webinars, then our return on investment is worse than a stock market crash. So how do I get better outcomes? Make sure you go to step 2 – memory recall / retention.

Total RecallMemory Recall

Successful learning must be measured by a person’s ability to recall the new knowledge they were taught, not their attendance in a training event. Recalling a new memory is a way of strengthening the pathways in the brain to significantly improve retention. Studies show the effectiveness of this. One such study demonstrated that students who were exposed to 4 simple quizzes over a period of weeks after a learning lesson had final exam test scores 30% better than those who did not do staged quizzes. What is actually happing is that the brain is improving the neural pathways to where the memory is stored and its association with other related memories.

My favorite example is the purchase of a new car. Before you can drive it off the lot, you must sit in the driver’s seat while the salesperson sits in the passenger seat and proceeds to give you a 10-minute lesson on the dashboard features of the car. It is an honorable but highly unsuccessful endeavor. Your intoxication by the smell of new leather and your fantasizing about the extra horsepower interfere with the learning moment. When you get home, you can’t remember how the stereo control voice commands work. Months go by before you finally make time to read the manual or go to the car company’s portal.

Memory Association

Cognitive brain experts know that retention improves when we associate new memories with ones we already know. We’re all victims of forgetting someone’s name seconds after they introduce themselves. By immediately associating that person with someone else you know you create a “memory connection” that improves your ability to remember that person’s name. Connecting them to a person with the same name or someone who they remind you of will improve your recall.

This same principle works for learning new skills. Including an implication question or association question in a follow-up quiz has the same positive effect. When you include a question as simple as “Where would you apply this feature?” or “What function is similar to this?” you are creating a memory association and subsequently helping the person to recall the new knowledge later.

brainexerciseUse It or Lose It

I’m sure this is not the first time you have heard this phrase but do you have a structured way to make sure it happens? There are two important points that need to be considered.

First, don’t overload your people with information they will never need or use in their role. Accountants may need to know the advanced features of Excel, the rest of us don’t. Be selective. Also, consider eliminating basic content that people will intuitively understand themselves. “I know how the turn signals on the car work. It’s the voice command features that stump me.”

Second, follow up from the learning events to ensure people are using the new functions. Where software is involved, we will often track transaction counts and compare this to an average expectation for that role. For example, you role out a new collaboration tool like Yammer (Microsoft) or Spark (Cisco). Counting how many messages a person creates lets you know, “they got it” or they need help. In cases where it is difficult or impossible to track then, you can substitute with a survey. We will add a question in our last quiz that asks how many times they have used a feature in the last four weeks. It is not as effective as transaction counts, but it gives a reasonable indicator of user adoption.


The purpose of a business transformation project is not to conduct a “training course” but to ensure that participants retain and subsequently use the knowledge they have gained. By focusing on the wrong purpose, we inadvertently choose the wrong strategies and metrics by which to measure our success. Too often retention is trumped by the importance of completing the training lesson. A manager may ask, “Has everyone taken the training?” The more effective question may be, “Does everyone remember what they learned and are they engaged?” These two questions use very different KPI’s to determine success.

What you’re doing today is probably working so why change? We know that people will eventually figure out how to use anything new but would you like it to happen now rather than months later? We suggest that companies rethink their current practices. By adding some form of quizzing and use tracking in a variety of learning situations, you will achieve your goals faster and with less effort. The evidence proves it works!

Postscript: Try it yourself. Write down how these ideas can be applied in your existing environment. Note the two places where this can be used right away. Congratulations, you are on the road to getting significant outcomes for your


Author: John Breakey (

Fivel combines brain biology, behavioral science and intrinsic motivation to accelerate employee engagement.