The Trainer’s ‘Killer App’ – Retrieval Events
  • leadership
  • Blog post

The Trainer’s ‘Killer App’ – Retrieval Events

In the past we’ve written about the father of memory research, Hermann Ebbinghaus, who proved in the 1880s that human beings forget 80% of what they learn within a month.

Lots of researchers since then have confirmed Ebbinghaus’ findings, and they’ve shown there’s a way to retain most or all of what we learn: through effective follow-up. The best study we’ve seen is one that appeared in the journal Science last year. Ebbinghaus’ studies tested people’s ability to retain rote learning – for example, sequences of numbers. The Science study, entitled “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying With Concept Mapping” (sorry for that mouthful), had students learning complex science concepts, a task that is far more relevant to the leadership and sales training businesses do.

The study, written by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janelle R. Blunt, disproves the common assumption that most learning takes place during the learning event – that is, the moment when people “encode” knowledge and experiences. Karpicke and Blunt made the surprising discovery that when learners revisit concepts after the initial event, in what they call “retrieval events,” they retain far more knowledge. The researchers’ conclusion is that these retrieval events – which could involve tests or having a coach observe learners deploying a learning concept – are not just neutral events to make sure people “encoded” the concept properly at the outset; people actually learn from them.

The implications of this are huge for anyone who manages people. An important part of every leader’s job is training. And if your training has no follow up – what we call it “interval reinforcement” at RLI – you’re getting a very low return on your investment (which is a nice way of saying you’re wasting your time and money). If, on the other hand, you view training as a process – where the initial learning event is merely a starting point and where you revisit learning concepts multiple times until permanent mastery of skills is achieved – you’ll get a huge ROI (and be a very effective leader).

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