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The Three Key Principles of Retention

In our last post, we reviewed groundbreaking research from The University of California, Irvine. Researchers studying the “pretesting effect” determined that taking a test before exposure to the material enhanced learning, even when participants answered questions incorrectly.

The act of pretesting outperformed the experience of having more time to study or even reading the test in advance. When learners put pencil to paper and attempted to retrieve information, they became more receptive to the content later. Their findings were definitive across five different studies. However, one question remained: why does pretesting work?

The researchers theorized that pretesting works by building retrieval routes that prime the learning process. Additionally, they suggest that pretesting might encourage “deep processing” of the question, giving learners a jump start on encoding answers. Here, we take these questions as inspiration to explore what makes learning stick. Answering this question begins with an understanding of why we forget in the first place.

For over 100 years, a finding called the Ebbinghaus Curve influenced theories about how we remember information. The curve — a downward, sloping line — shows that retention of information fades over time. Some also call it the Forgetting Curve.

UCLA psychologists in the 1980s, however, discovered an interesting characteristic hiding within Ebbinghaus’s research. They discovered that the original test subjects failed to remember the material because they were asked to recall a string of nonsense words like “sok” and “dus.” The participants couldn’t remember these words beyond a certain period because they had no meaning. Irrelevant information doesn’t stick because “the brain has no place to ‘put’ these letter trios,” as remarked by Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn.

Later studies found that when asked to retain something meaningful, like a poem, learners didn’t slide down the Ebbinghaus Curve — at least not to the same extent. Since making this discovery, trainers have realized that they need to make concepts relevant. This relevance engages with people on a personal level. The relatability of the information means that learners finally have a place to put the content. This finding underscores the first key principle behind making concepts stick: relatability.


Relatability is more than just identifying the salience of information. Relatability requires learners to be part of the process. At Richardson, we’ve put this concept to use with our Accelerate Digital Learning Platform, which encourages users to from connections between their work and key concepts in the material. As the authors of Make It Stick explain, “People who single out salient concepts from less important information they encounter in new material and who link these key ideas into a mental structure are more successful learners than those who cannot separate wheat from chaff and understand how the wheat is made into flour.” This engagement illustrates the second key principle of retention: active learning.

Active Learning

The concept of active learning goes beyond the idea that participants need to be engaged. With active learning, participants must embrace the process through varied styles. This idea contradicts a lot of conventional wisdom around learning. Many people believe that they are suited to learn through a specific medium (e.g., “I’m a visual learner”). We’ve all heard people insist that they’re a “left-brain learner,” or a “right-brain learner.” However, a 2008 review by cognitive psychologists shows that the evidence available doesn’t support the notion that there’s value in delivering content to suit specific learning styles. In fact, active learning works by drawing on numerous styles that benefit learners despite their preferences. Again, we’ve used this insight to guide the design of our content on Accelerate in which participants absorb takeaways through video, audio, text, gamification, and free response.

Learning across numerous styles, however, can be exhausting. Therefore, participants need occasional breaks. These breaks are for more than just rest. As it turns out, interruptions in the learning process serve a much more important and complex purpose. Pauses in learning help keep the unfinished task at the top of one’s mind. This phenomenon, called the Zeigarnik Effect, states that tasks that are still in progress have more influence on us. Researchers have learned that unfinished goals become their own motivators. Moreover, just starting the learning process in the first place helps set this principle in motion. “The act of starting work on an assignment often gives that job the psychological weight of a goal,” remarks Carey. This finding represents the third key principle of retention: continued learning.

Continued Learning

To truly grow, participants must accept that learning is an ongoing process. This continual approach to refreshing skills is part of the sustainment that’s critical to long-term improvement. Other research supports this point. In the Journal of Memory and Language, researchers note that “repeated retrieval of information is the key to long-term retention.” Learners can put findings like this to work by adopting a continuous learning approach to their development. For example, our on-demand modules on Accelerate are searchable and always available for those interested in refreshing their skills. Moreover, manager reporting means that learner and group-level analytics help those in a coaching role to provide support and sustainment where it’s needed, and online discussion boards can be used to keep the conversation going about how people are applying their skills in the field.

Findings like pretesting, the Ebbinghaus Curve, and the Zeigarnik Effect serve as an important reminder that much of what makes learning stick occurs before and after exposure to the content. Learners benefit themselves by taking a holistic approach to their development. That is, to improve their skills with sustained results, they must engage the process before, during, and after learning. At Richardson, we’ve been inspired by the latest research on how we can best help our learners experience a shorter time to proficiency.

Our key takeaways: put the learner first, and ensure that these three key principles of relatability, active learning, and continued learning are in full effect for clear results that last.

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