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5 ways to improve learner retention

5 ways to improve learner retention and minimise the forgetting curve

Category: eLearning

Decreasing the rate at which we forget is a function of a number of aspects of learning - be that eLearning, mobile learning or classroom based learning.

When considering how to devise learning that maximises retention you should consider the following points:

1. Design learning that is pertinent

Be driven in course design by what a learner needs to learn. Don’t simply operate to an arbitrary time or amount of learning. eLearning and mobile learning provide the ability to focus on giving learners the right amount of information, at the right time, at the correct level of complexity. Use that ability.

Courses should be designed with this in mind. Resist pressure to make a course longer than you feel it should be. Adding in information that a learner does not need to know at that point will detract from him or her learning and retaining what he or she needs to learn. Be ruthless in weeding out unnecessary content.

2. Identify what you want learners to remember

Today’s knowledge workers are happier finding out information than they are keeping it all in their memory (The New Knowledge Worker: Enabling the Next Generation).

That makes it even more important for you to identify what elements of training you want, and need, them to remember.

This is best achieved through discussions with learners themselves. However, seek only to identify core elements, be prepared to challenge them if they say ‘everything’. Having identified the information your learners absolutely need to remember there is more chance your course will have a good retention rate – you should confirm this for yourself with the use of post-course assessments.

3. Reward and motivate learners to learn

Winning and reward are great motivators. Ask your learners what ‘winning’ means for them to help you identify reward and motivational options.

For rewards to be effective, they need to be linked to material covered in your course. In form they can be deductive (pose a scenario and ask the learner to provide a solution using information from the course) or retentive (asking the learner a question on a subject covered in the course); using both approaches is best. The reward could be a ‘well done’, a certificate or more options and content (as widely used in games based learning).

Behaviourist educational psychologists favour reward and motivation based on positive reinforcement from a mentor (external motivation). Constructivists prefer learning content that creates internal motivation, with the learner congratulating themselves on good work. This is a simplistic description. In the real world the important thing is the act of rewarding and motivating learners.

4. Use in-course links

A highly effective way to remember is to turn individual pieces of data into a related information map. So, if a learner knows the context for a process he’ll find remembering the steps in that process easier. Put that process within the context of a scenario and the learner will find remembering easier still (particularly if the scenario runs throughout the course). Effectively, in using context and scenarios you are helping the learner to build memory maps (see Use Both Sides of Your Brain by Tony Buzan).

These kind of links also allow for memory-building repetition, but in a subtle way that avoids being boring and demotivating, important in eLearning and mobile learning - which are self-study in nature.

5. Create Multi-modal and Multi-layered content

Not all educators accept all the premises of the Learning Pyramid. It does, however have some useful points to make. In creating memories, passive study does not work as well as active learning. From this we can deduce that the top four sections (lecture, listen, read and watch) are not as effective as the bottom three (practice, group discussions, teaching others). The obvious point though, is that without the first four, the second three can’t take place. This emphasises the importance of multi-layered learning, different types reinforcing the other to make stronger memories.


Learners are also be helped to engage in a course and retain more of it, if content is presented in a number of different styles. In a classroom this can be done by a teacher using visual aids, demonstrations or group discussions to build collaborative learning. In eLearning and mobile learning this means taking full advantage of HTML5-based interactions, video, audio, quizzes, assessments and collaborative learning options.

Tim Buff
Author: Tim Buff

This article was published by Tim Buff on 13.01.2016. I'm CEO and Chief Learning Strategist at Agylia. My role is to help people and companies design and implement eLearning and mobile learning strategies - this often involves pushing technology boundaries to develop innovative and creative solutions.

Some of our clients:
  • Microsoft
  • FCO
  • Deloitte
  • E.ON
  • Telefonica
  • HSBC
  • Virgin Trains
  • Morgan Sindall
  • Jhpiego
  • Pernod Ricard
  • JD Williams
  • NHS Digital
  • National Grid
  • PWC
  • Blippar
  • IMarEST