By Xapiapps | Training Management, Training Reinforcement

Whether you’ve heard it explicitly said or not, retention of information is a key issue in the design and execution of a training session or training programme series. The issue of fostering retention in general is a topic of vibrant discussion among educationalists. Even in a modern context where we all have information at the tips of our fingers and simple assessment of recall is becoming less of a focus area in education as a whole, an adequate level of retention is necessary for competence and understanding to emerge.

Although there is disagreement on exactly the best method to optimize retention, no educational professional would describe the problem of fostering retention as an easy one. We all know from experience as students ourselves that retaining information, especially novel and possibly difficult content, is something that takes a considerable amount of effort on the part of both trainee and trainer. Student and teacher. What most people don’t realise is that, depending on the exact circumstances, loss of newly acquired information can happen with alarming speed. Something that has been noted in psychological literature for more than 100 years. The so-called “forgetting curve”.

The Forgetting Curve

The forgetting curve describes how quickly and by how much we lose new information that we’re exposed to if no attempt is made to reinforce the learning that has taken place.The average speed with which trainees can lose information after their initial training session is shocking in the least. The forgetting curve was originally conceptualised by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 1800s. He performed memory experiments on himself and plotted the rate at which he forgot information on the graph we now know as the forgetting curve. Essentially the curve shows that on average a person will begin to forget what they have been exposed to almost immediately. At the end of the first month of continuous information loss nearly all but 10% of that information is still around.

The High Cost of Low Effort

Unfortunately in practice many organisations have a “fire and forget” approach to training. They spend a fortune on acquiring or producing training material. Take employees out of their jobs to undergo that training, thereby losing a significant number of paid, otherwise productive hours.Given what we know about how elusive retention is with even the best designed and delivered training sessions it seems strange that significant effort isn’t generally put into supporting retention of new training efforts.

The cost of allowing retention to fade goes beyond the cost of developing the training material, delivering it and taking productive employees away from their jobs for while. It holds implications that go far deeper than that.Training aimed at internal staff usually has the goal of increasing the type or quality of skills within that organisation or facilitating change management necessary to maintain a competitive advantage.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that allowing consistent training failures to take place at best severely affects profitability and at worst threatens the very existence of an organisation over the medium to long term.Even worse, having no idea of whether retention is at an adequate level robs organisational decision makes of key information for strategic decision making. Being under the impression that training and upskilling is happening successfully and forming your impression of the overall capacity and capability based on that assumption is dangerous in the extreme if it is in error. If the strategic plan you craft exceeds the actual collective capacity and skills base of your organisation or team, you are setting them up for failure.

In the Name of Self-Interest

Although there are many great training specialists out there that can make a real positive change to your organisation’s fortunes, there are also a great many that are happy to take your money without actually delivering much by way of results. At the same time you have decision makers, middle- and upper- management, who accept the authority of trainers without thinking too critically about it.

A good trainer or training organisation will provide both a solid post-training support programme and a method of monitoring and evaluating the level of retention after active training sessions have concluded. At the very least retention is something that the trainer should discuss when pitching any training programme.

The Brass Tacks

Talking about money is considered vulgar by some people, but looking at the figures can really bring things into sharp perspective. According to the ATD 2014 State of the Industry report direct expenditure on training per employee stood at about $12001.For that money employees received an average of 3.5 or 4.5 (for large organisations) days of training each.

Now think about it this way: if each employee forgets 90% of their training that equates to  almost $1100 down the drain per employee that receives training. The really crazy thing is that for some companies the ROI on this investment seems to be worth it despite the implied wastage. Now imagine if those employees retained and implemented even half of what they learned during training. What sort of improvement could you actually see?

Some Perspective

Retention by itself cannot achieve much. We have to be realistic about that, but it’s an essential building block upon which the success of training rests. If trainees can’t retain they can’t implement, if they can’t implement they can’t change anything. Even worse, imperfect retention may lead to imperfect implementation, which could be the source of active damage to your business beyond merely wasted training expenditure.

The really sad aspect of this is that there’s no need to allow retention fail in such a catastrophic way. There are cost-effective and proven ways in which retention can be enhanced. You just have to decide to take retention seriously in the first place.


  1. https://www.td.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2014/11/2014-State-of-the-Industry-Report-Spending-on-Employee-Training-Remains-a-Priority

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