Making training stick: What’s the best timing for reinforcement?
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Making training stick: What’s the best timing for reinforcement?

We all know learning doesn’t stick without follow up. But how much follow up is enough? And when should it happen?

Reinforce too often or too soon and you waste training energy for little result; too little or too late and it’s unlikely that your learners will retain what you’ve taught them.

A growing body of research suggests yes, there is an optimal reinforcement schedule that helps you get the most out of your training efforts.

The Forgetting Point
Experimental psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found that without reinforcement, retention drops off dramatically.

You lose most of what you learned in just a few hours. In a week, nearly 80% of it is gone.

At first blush, the Forgetting Curve seems to suggest that you need to reinforce early and often – in other words, start pounding away immediately and keep at it until the learning sticks.

However, retention isn’t that simple. Which is actually good news. Subsequent researchers have built on Ebbinghaus’s research and discovered that the ideal timing of reinforcement is right when someone is ready to forget the material.

Repeatedly triggering learned material right at the cusp of forgetting trains the brain to remember that material and make it readily retrievable when you want to want to recall it. Call it the “Forgetting Point.”

And here’s the good news: After every reinforcement, you remember things longer. So the Forgetting Points become farther and farther apart.

Rules of thumb
That still leaves the question of how far apart these reinforcements should take place, and how long you need to keep following up.

The short answer, as you might have expected, is that it depends – on the material, on the learner, on the importance of what’s being learned. But there are some practical rules of thumb for trainers as they design their reinforcement programs:

  1. Increasingly space out the intervals. Each time you reinforce the material, forgetting takes longer. So have short reinforcement intervals right after the training, and then extend them over time. Research suggests you should schedule the first follow-up session within three or four days, depending on the material. Then make the next one five days out, then perhaps eight. Plan for about four or five intervals over two months.
  2. Assess and adjust. You train your team on a Monday. Just before your Wednesday follow-up session, you give them a quiz and everyone gets 100%. Good news, right? Well, yes and no. It’s good that they retained it. But it means they weren’t yet at the Forgetting Point. Next time you train people on similarly difficult material, expand the refresher interval. If people can’t remember the training, you’ll need to either shorten the interval or make sure people had a solid understanding of the material in the initial training session. You’ll know you have the interval right when people are struggling a little to recall the material.
  3. Formalize it. Create a follow-up plan and put the refreshers on a calendar. Don’t count on your ability to remember when you need to deliver reinforcements – the Forgetting Curve applies to trainers as well as learners.
  4. There is no end point. Research suggests that reinforcement continues to be valuable long after the training has taken place – even as long as several years out. But because the Forgetting Points gets farther and farther apart, you don’t need to refresh as often. Consider scheduling occasional refreshers on old concepts – perhaps once a year – to ensure that the learning isn’t lost.

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