How Often Should You Train Your Employees? Memory, Forgetting, and Optimizing Your Training Regimen for Retention

A consistent training regimen is important for you and your team. Effective training provides new hires and existing employees with the skills and knowledge they need to not only do their job but improve their performance. However, like many companies, you may not be sure how to train your employees, when to train them, and when to retrain them on previous skills.

If you are going to prioritize learning and skill development in your company culture, you need to do it right.

How good is your memory?

In “A Study in Scarlet”, the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes described a man’s brain as an attic. A foolish man would stuff the attic full of junk, making it difficult to retrieve useful items and information. However, a wise man (or woman, of course) would only save the most important tools and information so as to render them easily accessible in times of need. This is an extraordinarily relevant theory to our workplace habits, training tactics, and daily performance.

Your employees get bombarded every day with emails, texts, phone calls, and conversations that contain countless bits of information. You cannot expect them to retain everything. More importantly, you must be prepared for them to forget at least some of the knowledge and habits you try to instill.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

In 1885 the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus studied his own ability to retain various information. Specifically, he studied the memorization of nonsense syllables like “WID” and “ZOF”, then plotted the results over a period of time. The graph of his results is now known as the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve and supporting research estimates that within 1 hour people will have forgotten up to 50 percent of the information presented in an earlier learning session. Within a day, an average of 70 percent of the new information may have been forgotten. Within a week, participants may have forgotten around 90 percent. These are averages based on one type of study, the percentages should be taken with a grain of salt.

Now, while this is a large amount of information to forget, one thing is important to note: Forgetting is useful. It clears out old memories that are no longer needed – like where you parked your car last week during your offsite meeting, yesterday’s weather, or what you had for dinner three weeks ago – and makes room for new memories that are more pertinent. This is great for our efficiency, and it is inevitable.

However, the process of forgetting things often involves forgetting important things, information we want to retain. This is a problem.

Thankfully, Ebbinghaus and others have noted the speed of forgetting depends on a number of factors including the participant’s physical state at the time of learning, the emotional or intellectual power of the memory, the teaching methods, and the amount of repetition. For instance, Ebbinghaus hypothesized that mnemonic techniques for aiding information retention or retrieval (like the ABC’s song) may improve retention rates.

Ebbinghaus’ research also prompted his notion of “overlearning”. Overlearning means one has spent more time than necessary memorizing a certain piece of information and has therefore rendered the memorization of the information stronger and less likely to be forgotten.

3 Tips to Optimize Your Training Regimen

So, there is hope, a method to the madness. When we take Ebbinghaus’ hypotheses into account, we can design a training regimen that is memorable and impactful. Here are a few tips to improve the efficacy of your training sessions.

To start, make sure your training schedule is relevant to your company’s work schedule and appropriate for your employees. Too often companies schedule training far in advance of when it will actually be used. Since time is of the essence, you should schedule training as close to the time as it will be used. This allows employees to perform learned tasks in the real world closer to the moment they were first introduced to the knowledge, which should increase the likelihood they will develop the correct habits.

In addition, make sure training times coincide with the best learning environment for your team. If your employees usually begin work around 8am, don’t schedule training for 6am. Their entire physiological clock will be in an interrupted state. Instead, we recommend you schedule training for 9am (in this scenario). At 9am your team is awake, at the office, acclimated to their environment, and has had an appropriate amount of time to respond to any morning emergencies.

Second, when designing your training content, make sure it is related to the actual job. Bland bits of knowledge and a few check boxes do not constitute an engaging learning experience. A new piece of information is much more likely to be remembered if it is relevant to the task at hand, if the learner can see exactly how the new information will benefit them. Try to use stories and concrete examples.

Third and finally, allow students to practice immediately after the training, in real life, and in real-time, if possible. For instance, if an employee is given the responsibility of answering service tickets related to a specific software package, let them practice answering real service tickets from real customers. Guide them through the process, help them craft their responses, and give them the freedom to make a few mistakes.

The more time spent learning a new task will contribute to the “overlearning” phenomenon mentioned by Ebbinghaus. If you can give your team hands-on experience during or right after training you will significantly increase their retention rates. This is why we try to give examples and exercises during each lesson of Dave’s Charm School courses.

Should Training be Priority #1?

The best companies are often the ones that prioritize training over everything else.

Lately I have been reading Simply Brilliant by William C. Taylor. Quite a few of the brilliant organizations mentioned in the book place a high priority on consistent, regular training.

One of the examples that stood out to me is Pal’s Sudden Service. Now, I’m not a huge fan of fast food, mostly because it’s usually unhealthy fare. But I don’t have to be a fan of fast food to appreciate Bill Taylor’s description of the company culture at Pal’s and their commitment to training.

According to the book, Pal’s is the fastest fast food restaurant in the country. On average, customers get their food at Pal’s Sudden Service in less than a quarter of the time of any other quick-serve restaurant. They place an order face-to-face with a human being (very cool) in an average of eighteen seconds, then pick up the order at the handout window (another real-life human!) in an average of twelve seconds. I don’t think customers drive super fast, that’s not included in the estimates. It’s the interactions with the employees that we are talking about.

And this is just one of Pal’s incredible performance statistics mentioned in the book (hint: they also rarely mess up orders).

The secret to their success? A commitment to training. One hundred and twenty hours of training for new employees, and regular, required, re-certification for existing employees. Pal’s is so committed to making sure their team is excellent that they administer pop quizzes: “every day… a computer randomly generates the names of two to four employees to be re-certified in one of their jobs (at the restaurant). They take a quick test, see whether they pass, and if they fail, they get retrained for that job before they can do it again.”

It’s this commitment to training that has made Pal’s a success, with their customers and their employees. Think about it: If you had one hundred and twenty hours of training to work at a fast foot joint you would (1) rarely make mistakes and (2) feel incredibly competent.

I will leave you with one final quote from the book that I found the most important, and most relevant to this article. When speaking about Pal’s commitment to training, Pal’s CEO Thom Crosby said this:

We believe in certification over graduation. We train you, we graduate you – that’s when most companies stop. But people go out of calibration just like machines go out of calibration. So we are always training, always teaching, always coaching.

Think about that the next time you schedule a training session.