Learning Decay: How Technology Can Solve an Age-Old Problem

By Hillary Miller
September 18, 2017

Trainers teach material, and employees absorb new knowledge — at least long enough to pass the test at the end of the module. And then it’s gone. All those new skills slip away almost as fast as they were learned.

Although modern technology has done a great deal for education — increasing access, lowering training costs, increasing flexibility — learning decay is one problem that persists. Why has learning decay remained such a stubborn issue, and what can we do about it?

Why We Forget

To understand what learning decay really means, it’s helpful to know a little bit about the psychology of forgetting.

“There are many reasons we forget things and often these reasons overlap,” explains Dr. Christopher L. Heffner in an article from AllPsych. “Some information never makes it to LTM [long term memory]. Other times, the information gets there, but is lost before it can attach itself to our LTM. Other reasons include decay, which means that information that is not used for an extended period of time decays or fades away over time. It is possible that we are physiologically preprogrammed to eventually erase data that no longer appears pertinent to us.”

When the information is first taught, it’s fresh in the minds of the learners. A week goes by, and in most cases, learners aren’t directly applying what they’ve learned — so it fades away.

This can be especially important for training in industry compliance, emergency preparedness, and harassment or discrimination. The information in these training sessions aren’t necessarily intended to be used on a day-to-day basis. But if a situation arises where this training becomes relevant, all too often, an employee won’t be able to recall what they learned in a long-ago workshop.

The Impact of Learning Decay

Eduardo Salas is a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Central Florida. He’s a program director at the university’s Institute for Simulation and Training, and has studied corporate training programs for over 20 years.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, Dr. Salas describes what learning decay means for the efficacy of corporate training.

“The American Society for Training and Development says that by the time you go back to your job, you’ve lost 90% of what you’ve learned in training. You only retain 10%,” Dr. Salas says. “If you don’t use the skills very quickly, you will have big decay very quickly. That’s why you need to reinforce, you need to assess. If you learn something and you don’t have the opportunity to practice, eventually you are going to lose it.”

How Technology Can Help

We might not have a silver bullet to prevent learning decay, but Dr. Salas has some suggestions.

“Testing is an integral part of training,” Dr. Salas says. “It is paramount for recognizing skills decay. Assessment should be done on a continuous basis, both formally and informally. Your direct supervisor often has the most intimate knowledge of important skills and whether you need to go back to training.”

But what training really needs to do, Dr. Salas argues, is emphasize how to use resources instead of forcing rote memorization. “Companies need to teach employees how and where to access facts,” he explains. “What training ought to do is help you get access to that information—databases, manuals, checklists—when you need it on the job. They cannot memorize everything.”

This is where technology can become an important weapon in the fight against learning decay. It’s become easier than ever to have large numbers of employees take a test on a computer, and then digitally crunch the data to pinpoint specific areas where knowledge is lacking.

Managers can take the assessment data and use it to implement relevant training. The training, in turn, can focus on educating employees about how to utilize resources and access information as needed. All of the databases, manuals, and checklists that anyone could want are now as easily accessible as the nearest smartphone.

In the past, training might have been about ensuring that employees could rattle off information that might or might not become relevant at any given time. But today, we can use technology to diagnose exactly when and where training is needed. Then, it’s a matter of teaching employees to effectively leverage technology so that they can do better, smarter work.