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5 Ways to Help Trainees Retain Their Learning

— by Trina Rimmer


If there’s any kind of upside to sick time I suppose it’s having some downtime to catch up on my reading.  As I convalesced from yet another illness last week, I was reminded that reading and laughter are still the best medicines. Jeff Goldman’s post on Minute Bio, “Signs of Being in e-Learning Hell,” was an entertaining pill to swallow — as funny as it was bitingly true.

The biting truth as revealed by Jeff is that many of us associate online training or e-Learning with some degree of soul-crushing agony. Whether you’ve been the training designer faced with a cascade of e-Learning technical snafus and challenging project stakeholders, or the learner faced with rambling text-filled pages and lame/irrelevant quiz questions, the painful memories of a lousy training experience can linger far longer and more intensely than the learning itself!  This begs the question: How can you design training that helps trainees really retain their learning — without all the therapy bills?  For starters, it helps to know how the brain itself learns and retains information — check out our recent infographic that explains the process. Here’s how to tap into that process with great training content.

1.  Focus on meaning

Key to making information more memorable is to make it relevant and accessible. When the meaning of information is clear (and concise) and the context of the information is made personal (i.e. “What’s in it for me”), it’s more readily retained and recalled.

Some ideas to help build meaning, include:

  • Using case studies to keep it real and relevant
  • Playing serious games to bust your audience’s assumptions about themselves (for a great example of one amazing serious game, check out Play Spent)
  • Hearing from a peer/customer can help trainees learn how to apply new skills and knowledge in the workplace

2. Keep it short & sweet

There’s a good reason why I can remember my 10-digit phone number but not my 16-digit credit card number. Studies have shown that there’s a correlation between the size of the learned material and the likelihood of successful recall. Simply put, when it comes to learning, shorter is better. Further reinforcing this idea are numerous attention span studies showing a sharp decline after 10-20 minutes. 10-20 minutes of seat time isn’t much when you’re dealing with text-loving SMEs, scary deadlines, and big, hairy processes. But my take on it is this: You’re much better off creating one or two quick, impactful lessons that make progress towards an end goal, rather than designing four or five longer lessons that may get the training experience over with in one session but with less impact on performance.

3. Write using an inverse pyramid design 

I’ve read that learners are more likely to remember the first and last bits of information covered in training – and the stuff in the middle is less likely to stick. While that may be true, I tend to write with a focus on delivering critical information up front, with the less essential information later.  My thought is, if the learner tunes out, at least they’ve gotten the essentials. I’ve learned that journalists call this writing style an inverted pyramid design. I call it a smart way to keep my writing practical and learner-centric!

4. Show, don’t tell

We love to tell our learners everything, don’t we? But what we should be doing is showing them how to do things in a way that’s relevant in their workspace.  Next time you’re tempted to tell your trainees how to perform a task, consider capturing the steps in a short how-to video or a screencast. Or better yet, ask a trainee to capture their own how-to videos/screencasts and share it with their peers.

5. Encourage note-taking

Many studies have shown that generative techniques, like note-taking, can lead to as much as a 30% gain in learning. But we don’t often associate note-taking with e-Learning. Here are some ideas for encouraging note-taking with an online training audience:

  • Instead of providing a completed job aid – give trainees a job aid template and ask them to fill it in themselves.
  • Provide trainees with a blank notepad and a pen and give them some questions to think about as they’re taking your online training.  Circle back to them later for a little virtual conversation to see what they came up with.
  • Give trainees an “Action Plan” to help them translate their notes into action items they can use on the job.

What are your tricks for helping trainees retain their learning?  Share them with us and leave a comment.

Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with thirteen years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training. When her skills aren’t being tested by her children, you’ll find her helping others to develop their own training design muscles.

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