Want to make your training stick? A classic study on memory suggests an easy way to do it: Make training personal.

Connecting learners to your training content can have surprisingly powerful results.

The research

In the experiment, researchers had two groups of participants memorize a list of words. Both groups were told they’d be tested on the list later. Importantly, each group was instructed to think about the words differently while memorizing them.

Group One was asked to check if each word contained an “e” or a “g.” Group Two, on the other hand, was asked to think about how they felt about each word – specifically, whether they found the word pleasant or not.

On the test, Group Two remembered 26% more words.

Why it works

The researchers concluded that just telling learners that content is important isn’t enough. To get better results from your training efforts, you have to help learners see how the content is important to them.

According to the research, teaching trainees something new and asking them to think about it on a surface level (e.g. whether a word contains an “e” or a “g”) is the equivalent of “shallow processing.”

But you want learners to engage in “deep processing,” where they reflect on the material and think about what it means to them personally and how it affects their job or career. This makes the content resonate and stick.

The research suggests that if learners can make content their own, they’ll be much more likely to remember it and actually use it on the job.


Here are some ways to help make training content personal.

Discuss learners’ prior knowledge. Numerous studies have shown the importance of connecting new information to learners’ prior knowledge, or what they know about the topic already. Linking new content to existing knowledge helps learners see the relevance and process the information on a deeper level.

For example, if you’re teaching salespeople a new closing technique, you may want to ask questions like: What closing techniques do you know? What techniques are you currently using? What works for you? What doesn’t work?

Give trainees opportunities to express their thoughts and opinions. Ask learners what they think of the training material. Have they heard this information before? Are they excited to apply it on the job? If not, what challenges do they see and how can you help them address those challenges?

Help learners find the personal connection.
Ask trainees how the content will affect their experience at work. Have them articulate the benefits.

For example, if you’re training managers on how to deal with an employee who has a bad attitude, ask learners how they’d use the concept in real life. Would it make their job easier? Would it be a relief to address the situation with the employee? How would improving the situation boost morale in the department? What would that feel like?

Hyde, T. S., & Jenkins, J. J. (1973). Recall for words as a function of semantic, graphic, and syntactic orienting tasks. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12(5), 471–480.

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