Why People Forget What They Learn in a Training Course and How to Address It

Why People Forget What They Learn in a Training Course and How to Address It

Imagine attending a training course which at the time you thought was fine and covered a good range of content that you didn’t know about. Sometime later, your colleague asks you about the course and to your shock you realise that you cannot remember much about it. It feels as if it was years ago that you’ve attended it even though it was only a month ago. Funny enough, you remember that you thought at the time that it was actually a good course; it was very informative. You explain this to your colleague but you cannot help wondering why you don’t remember much of the course or the actual content covered. Of course you don’t share this part with your colleague. You don’t want him to think that your memory is poor or worst that you wasted company resources by attending a course that you didn’t get much from.

You put it to your hectic workload and think nothing of it. You finish off your conversation with your colleague as you need to press on with the next meeting…

What is going on? Are training courses supposed to be like this or is there something more fundamental taking place? Or, to ask the question in a different way, as a trainer is there something you can do to avoid the above eventuality?


What Is Training?

To see what is going on in this scenario let’s start from the beginning and see what a training course is supposed to do.

Training is about learning a new skill. It is not about awareness or getting exposed to a new field. That is the aim of a lecture or presentation. In contrast, a training course aims to teach delegates a new skill.

It also aims to teach delegates new skills there and then. In a training course, you cannot rely on training people once they have left the course. That would be self-learning; not an interactive, instructor-led training course.

Now that we have established what training is, let’s see what you can do to make it more effective. First and foremost, you need to immerse your delegates in the new skills you are teaching them.

But what does this really mean?

It means that you must appeal to all their senses and get them fully engaged in learning new skills.

For example, suppose you want to teach someone how to paint a well. You can explain how acrylic paints works, you can showcase several finished work that you have done in the past, you can showcase masterpieces, you can even demonstrate painting right in front of delegates.

How much can you achieve only with these kinds of techniques?

You can raise learners’ awareness, introduce various techniques or make them interested in the skills. However, unless they pick up a brush and paint something they will not know how it feels to paint or what they are supposed to do when they hold it in their hands. How much pressure does it take, what angle to use, what kinds of issues to expect or how would drawing on a canvas feel? If they don’t go through the experience themselves they are very likely to forget all about it shortly after the course.

Teaching soft skills is just the same. Delegates must experience the skills, preferably several times, before they can learn something new.


How About Repetition?

We all know that by repeating a particular skill we get to learn more. Due the way our brains work, repetition seems to be the central part of learning new skills. A classic example for this is getting the delegates learn and remember each other's names. The right repetition strategy can make all the difference. For example, you can use the Name Game that can help delegates remember names even 11 weeks after the course. 

Hence, during a course you should aim to cover a particular skill several times and from different angles. In multi-day courses, you can revisit the topic again and again. You cannot expect delegates to remember what you said in the first day of the course if that was the only time you have ever mentioned it. Later on, when delegates’ knowledge is increased, they will have a much better overall understanding of the topic so covering the original lesson will actually make it clearer. After all, it is all too easy to miss the importance of some information if you are still unfamiliar with the whole domain.


What Happens When You Immerse and Repeat?

Let’s summarise what we have covered so far. To improve your training course, you consider immersing your delegates in a specific topic. You also devise a strategy to cover a given topic several times aiming to repeat over the topic during the training course.

So far so good. Except that you can get this wrong really badly.

Here is what some trainers do; while aiming to immerse delegates in a subject and repeat the lesson, they end up cramming a lot of content into the course. In their enthusiasm to improve the training course by immersion and repetition, they end up covering too much content which can lead to losing focus. This can be lethal since it means that learners may actually end up learning nothing deep enough or well enough as they are shifted from topic to topic, from exercise to exercise.

The overwhelming content will eventually lead to fatigue and by the end of the course nothing sticks.

The problem is also exasperated by the fact that a well-informed trainer usually knows the content really well and might simply forget how long it takes to learn it from scratch. Rather than allowing time for delegates to absorb the content just as he might have spent hours on it originally, he keeps bombarding them with more. As the name suggests, just as bombarding is destructive in real life, so it is in a training class.


How to Avoid Bombarding?

To avoid bombarding delegates with content, you need to choose. This is difficult because it means you need to be selective. You need to decide whether to cover a topic properly or skip it altogether. There is no middle ground. The middle ground only leads to raising awareness which can be done by a presentation or lecture; it is not the purpose of training.

A good analogy for this is that you must act much like a sculptor. There is the body of knowledge and skills in society that you are an expert on and tasked to train a number of delegates on these skills. You must hack away at this body and remove the unessential content, much like how a sculptor will use his chisel to carve through a block of marble. Get rid of parts that don’t matter, parts that won’t be seen or noticed, parts that won’t appreciated at this level, parts that confuse.

For training, it means you must allow gaps and cover topics more extensively so that by the end of a lesson delegates are actually skilled in something new. This means you may cover less number of topics, but at least you know they have learned them more thoroughly.

Consider the following techniques:

  • Add plenty of exercises for each critical topic. If the topic is important, don’t just rely on one exercise.
  • Add gaps between lessons. Allow recap time. Once you have covered a lesson you need to connect it to what you have covered before as well as what you will cover next. You need to allow delegates to express what they have learned in their own terms.
  • Use games, quizzes, demonstrations and cooperative group activities. This will help you to immerse the delegates in a given topic and remain focused on that topic.

In short, give delegates time to reflect on the skills they have learned. Give them time to ponder and reflect. Don’t bombard them with content. Make delegates interested and be brave in cutting away content from the course to increase your focus on other parts. Only then will you be able to offer a training course where delegates learn a skill as opposed to be presented with an idea.

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