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Make it Stick: Learning Transfer and Retention

Updated: May 23, 2023

It's been said that 80% of training taught in the workplace is forgotten the next day. So how do you beat the statistics and ensure your learning strategies reinforce learning, improve retention and increase learning transfer back on the job?

Employees are more effective when they take new skills in context and apply what they've learned in their work activities. Your goal, then, is to design training strategies that produce effective memory plus positive skill transfer.

Foster ideal learning conditions

Transfer and retention are most likely to occur when these four learning conditions are present: association, similarity, context and critical element.

  • Association: When learners can associate new information with something they already know, they are more likely to remember the new information and apply it to their job. For example, if the learner is being trained on a new software system, it helps to compare and contrast it to the older system that the learner probably knows a lot about.

  • Similarity: If learners can fit new information into an existing logical framework or pattern they already have, there's a much better likelihood that they will retain it. So, if they're learning a new process, be sure they understand how that process fits into their daily routine.

  • Context: Learning transfer and retention is more likely when learners have a solid understanding of foundational concepts. It's important to have some groundwork or context for the new information. For example, offering a prerequisite course to learn basic concepts before learners going on to more difficult concepts.

  • Critical element: Of course, if the learner sees how the new information is beneficial to him or critical to his job, this can improve learning transfer and retention. As an example, an employee taking a safety training course needs to be reminded how the knowledge will keep her and/or her colleagues safe. Another example would be training which lets a salesperson know how it will help him get new customers or increase his sales.

Analyze current learning environment

When designing your training strategy, it's important to analyze the current learning environment and involve stakeholders in the training program. Focus on helping learners achieve retention and transfer as you:

  • Collaborate with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). They should have a good idea of what the learner already knows, so they can help the training team identify that. Learners' knowledge might be from previous training they attended, on-the-job experiences or prerequisite skills the employees should have to perform their responsibilities.

  • Look at the current training curriculum and job descriptions to find out what the learners may already know.

  • Survey the target audience about their current skills and experiences.

Once you know everything to be covered in the new training, work with SMEs to help the training team figure out the most important concepts that learners will need to know. This can be done by assessing key tasks and ranking them from most to least important.

SMEs can also help identify any roadblocks or building blocks that affect the learners' ability to retain the new information. For example, they can help determine if learners have a negative perception of the new information based on bad past experiences with similar topics. And, if this is true, maybe they can help answer how those perceptions can be turned around.

Incorporate best practices

For best results in helping employees apply their learning on the job, try incorporating some of these ideas to make the training more effective.



Make learning as visual and interactive as possible.

​Combine learning modalities to maximize memory. For example, provide a visual with text or have learners practice something after they see it performed.

​Refer to previous experience.

  • ​Audience analysis is important to find out what your learners know prior to the training.

  • Encourage learners to share and review what they already know; review new content often.

  • Build on the knowledge base adults bring to the training, or build a base during training so everyone has the same starting point.

​Do not let previous learning impede transfer.

​Sometimes the most difficult task is to ‘break old models’ or habits that are not contributing to success. You may need to help learners unlearn bad habits and negative connotations/emotions they acquired from past learning. This is particularly true after a new software implementation has had an error-filled rollout.

​Use a variety of contexts to ensure learning and transfer.

  • ​When you review and summarize, do it differently than you presented the information.

  • Present information in more than one way. Tell them, show them, let them experience in a safe way.

  • If you use scenarios, vary the scenarios or context to allow learners to see the broader picture.

​Make learning social.

​Provide opportunities for peer-learning, allowing employees to explain concepts in their own words and apply their knowledge to new situations. Research shows that collaborative learning promotes engagement and benefits long-term retention.

Provide practical application of knowledge and skills

Regardless of approach, effective learning is an active (not a passive) process. Design training that gives learners opportunities to think on their own and/or apply their knowledge to construct something new. Working through difficult problems, collaborating with peers to develop a project and problem solve together, and having the freedom to make decisions about one’s own learning are not just rewards for good performance, they are the keys to engaging training and should be regular occurrences in every training program.

To encourage learners to apply new knowledge and skills beyond the training event, and therefore increase retention, incorporate post-training activities whenever possible. These could be follow-up Q&A sessions, buddy programs, manager check-ins or other activities that encourage learners to think about how they are applying their new skills and knowledge back in their work environment.

In summary

Good design is all about employees being able to transfer what is learned in one context to an entirely new one. The goal, then, is for all training to be focused on achieving learning retention and transfer. It’s the essential ingredient for effective, enduring, and relevant learning. It maximizes the funding spent on training, while ensuring performance that positively affects the return on that investment.

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