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23 May. 2012 | Comments (0)

Have you taken a class, gone through a webinar or completed an online module more than a week ago? Quick – don’t check your notes or, review the syllabus – what do you remember?  

My guess: the more complex and detailed the topic, the less likely it is you’ll recall what you were taught.  And if you’ve only used the information once and heard little or nothing about it since, you’ll likely remember less.  That’s how perception, memory, and learning work.

In the workplace, when we try to teach concepts, such as welcoming concerns, non-retaliation or other compliance topics, we often don’t match how we teach to how we learn. No wonder so much is either ignored or forgotten and never applied.

Yes, there’s a learning revolution unfolding right in front of us, driven by amazing new technologies. The daily flood of ideas and products is itself nearly overwhelming.  But, we’ll make an epic blunder if we assume that simply adopting them will lead to increased absorption.   New technologies and learning products have to address how we process and apply learning to be effective.  Here are some principles to remember:

First, we most likely remember something which is attached to an experience that happens to us or which is personally meaningful.  That’s why training on actions we are supposed to take and principles we must apply has to be experiential and positioned in a way that matters to us as learners.  Content that is not important to us is just not as well remembered as that which is. That’s also why direct leadership support and modeling is so critical – if information is meaningful to our leaders based on what they say and do on the job, it is likely to be meaningful to us. Leadership support in the form of communication and consistent actions is part of what makes learning sustainable.

Second, our ability to pay attention is limited. We literally take in a lot less information than is transmitted to us.  We can only absorb so much, even in the context of highly charged experiences. Lots of details still fit through our attention cracks.  Let’s just assume we are able to actually take in 60% of what we are taught in a one-hour class.  Distractions and trying to keep up with what we’re hearing and seeing in the moment drain our ability to perceive the other 40%.  Flood someone with tons of data devoid of personal significance and they’ll absorb a smaller amount.  This is part of the lesson of The Invisible Gorilla, a book written by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in the 90s, about cognition. Check out the website, watch a few of the video demonstrations and you’ll see how limited our abilities are to perceive events right in front of us.

Third, we remember only a fraction of the information we receive. There is a dramatic downward slope which tracks length of time against what you remember. The more time passes the less you recall. Let’s assume two weeks after a training event you only remember 50% of what you were taught [Read Moon Walking with Einstein by Joshua Foer to learn more about this.]  Link that to what you originally perceived [60%].  The result: Two weeks after a training event, you may only recall 30% of what you were taught.  Over time, that percentage will continue to decline. That’s why reinforcement and leadership reminders are so critical.

Put all this together, and it explains the power of our mantra for learning:  Make it Matter. Make it Simple. Make it Stick.™  Applying that simple phrase to any learning subject topic will help translate your training into enduring behavioral and cultural change.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world’s leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Mr. Paskoff can be contacted at

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  • About the Author:Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq.

    Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq.

    Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is the founder, president and CEO of ELI®, a training company that teaches professional workplace conduct, helping clients translate their values into behaviors, increase…

    Full Bio | More from Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq.


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