Kaplan University School of Professional and Continuing Education Kaplan University School of Professional and Continuing Education

Making Learning Stick

Make Learning Stick

Posted by: Stephen D. Froikin, JD, MSEd, ChFC, CLU, CASL, ITP
Updated: January 29, 2019


You sign up for a class. You’re excited, the teacher is inspiring, and you are learning things that really make sense. You complete the work with enthusiasm, and in the back of your head, you think, “I can’t wait to use this stuff back at the office!”

Then you get back to the office. You might write yourself a few notes about the class. Maybe you put some reminders in the calendar. But the reality is, you have a lot of emails to answer, calls to return, and meetings to attend. In a few weeks, you will look at your notes and think, “What a great class!” But you haven’t really put your new knowledge to work, and now you’re a bit fuzzy on the details. You don’t know how to change your workday in order to take maximum advantage of everything you learned.

We’ve all had a similar experience. According to research reported in The Wall Street Journal, “90% of new skills are lost within a year.

Breaking With Tradition

Traditional instruction focuses on getting a learner up to speed, but loses influence when the learner walks out of the classroom, whether real or virtual. This is true no matter how effective and dynamic the instruction. This is not to say that traditional instruction is not effective. It is good up to the point of completion, but what happens after the point of completion is subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If new skills are not solidified into new behaviors and routines soon after the instruction, they will likely become a fond memory.

Corporate trainers are in the best position to observe the skill loss. They are the ones that arrange training to achieve a particular business goal, and they are the ones who get the complaints when training fails to have the desired effect.

There are many reasons for the failure. Here are a few:

  • Learning may not align with the goals of the business, or the goals may have changed since the learning was planned.
  • Resources may not be in place to allow learners to apply their new skills.
  • The learning may not have occurred at the right time. Technical knowledge easily evaporates if not put to use right away.
  • Office relationships can get in the way. Putting new skills to work can be awkward without a supportive social context.
  • Rewards (e.g., promotions, raises, praise) may not be aligned with performance of the new skills. A learner may simply find more work as punishment instead.
  • The work environment (apart from the social context, rewards, and punishments) may lack supports such as mentoring, feedback, and other types of performance support.
  • The solutions to these problems often go beyond the world of training, but there is something that can be done to break the tradition—planning for post-instruction support.

Transfer of Learning

The desired connection between learning and the job is called “transfer of learning.” This means that people can apply what they learn at a course to their actual job. Transfer of learning can be promoted within a course and supported by various aids that can be accessed after the course is over. This does not solve the environmental factors (e.g., alignment with business goals, timing, relationships, rewards, punishment), but it does provide a scaffolding to allow a learner to try out new skills and gain proficiency in practice.

Let’s start with the job aids and performance supports. If you’ve ever stuck a note to your computer to remind yourself how to do a particular job, you’ve created a job aid. Job aids can come in a variety of forms:

  • Checklists ensure you don’t skip a step in a process, particularly a linear process without branches.
  • Decision trees or flow charts graphically show the decisions required in a branching process together with their consequences and next steps.
  • Step-by-step instructions expand the checklist concept by filling in details.
  • References allow you to look up information you need to complete a job.
  • Worksheets and forms are often present on a job anyway, but maybe not the ones you want.
  • Job aids can help, but they can also overwhelm. The ones that overwhelm should be called job hindrances. Learners likely won’t use job aids if they are too complicated or if they are not well-aligned with the job.

Other performance supports include:

  • The availability of mentors who learners can work with as they practice applying their new skills.
  • Effective feedback from supervisors and coworkers.
  • Communities of practice, often online, to allow a mixed community of experts and learners, where learners can ask questions as they arise in practice and get answers or suggestions.