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How to remember: combatting the forgetting curve through practical experiences

Dan Tesnjak, VP EMEA at Degreed, discusses how experiential learning can help to combat the forgetting curve. 

Your brain was designed to forget. Think about that for a second. Your brain actively deletes anything that doesn’t help you. It’s an evolutionary process that meant we could adapt, survive, and learn new things. But it also means that we’re likely to forget what we’ve learned at work unless it’s put into practice quickly after the event. In fact, we forget 90% of new information only a month after learning it. Finding ways to combat this is as important as implementing a learning strategy in the first place. 

Retaining learning = business value

As HR and learning leaders, you want to ensure every investment in upskilling adds value to your business. You cannot achieve that if people are forgetting what they’ve learned almost instantly. Luckily there is a solution. Experiential learning is growing in popularity as a way to retain knowledge and stretch skills.

Simply put, experiential learning is a type of learning that offers practical experiences to reinforce theoretical learning. It can involve shadowing, stretch assignments, mentoring, and volunteering. By doing experiential learning activities, people can learn about something from many different angles and really deepen their understanding. Plus, it’s a great way to practice and refine skills that are harder to teach theoretically, like management and negotiation. 

The history of experiential learning

The current form of experiential learning traces its roots back to David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. This theory considers how people learn, develop and change their skills. There are four stages in the cycle:

  1. Concrete experiences: This is when you learn something new or experience something familiar in a new way. Taking part in an event, listening to a podcast, and completing a course module are all examples of this. In fact, reading this article counts as a concrete experience. 
  2. Reflective observation: This stage enables you to reflect on your learning experience, to consider what went well, what could be improved, and what takeaways can you add to your day-to-day to improve your work. Another activity you could do in this stage is to shadow a colleague and reflect on their experience. 
  3. Abstract conceptualization: In this phase, you are making sense of your experience and reflections. This is where you decide on next steps and create a clear action plan of how you’re going to move forward. Managers, peers, and mentors can all feed in at this stage to help you set your next goals.
  4. Active experimentation: This is where you apply what you’ve learned. The bulk of experiential learning will happen in this stage, with stretch assignments, temporary redeployments, volunteering and mentoring all counting as ways to apply your new skills. 

After active experimentation, the cycle begins again as your experiential learning activity will count as a new concrete experience. The cycle can keep repeating until you, or your manager and peers, feel that your skills are at the required level. 

Experiential learning has perks

The most obvious benefit to learning in this way is that it constantly uses the same pathways in your brain, making it less likely that your brain will delete the new information. For HR and learning leaders, it makes skills more applicable to the business and, because more information is retained, there is less wastage in your learning investment. 

A further boost comes in the form of workforce agility and resilience. With people regularly stretching their skills through redeployments in other business areas, there is more mobility within the workforce. It makes it easier to shift people from one function to another if the need arises (like how travel staff moved into hospitality and healthcare roles at the height of the pandemic). It also spreads knowledge across the organization so one person or team doesn’t become a bottleneck of specific information.

It can have a knock on effect on retention too. If people can simply move within their organization for a new challenge and to learn new things, they will be more likely to stay. Especially if the move aligns with their long-term career goals. 

Make it personal

It’s worth exploring that point in more detail. All learning, experiential or not, needs to be personalized to an individual’s aspirations. They will be more likely to engage with learning opportunities if they have a vested interest in it. Make sure any experiential learning offered to them is relevant to their plans. This is where people managers are essential. Regular communication between an employee and their manager can tell you what interests them and what skills they’d like to build. 

Track your learning

You will also need some kind of tracking system that can record the experiential learning being done. This can be used to assess the initiative’s success, report back to senior stakeholders, and also boost an employee’s confidence and career growth. They will be able to look back at everything they have completed and the skills they have built. These insights can prove invaluable for performance and career growth conversations. 

Make sure your investment pays off

When implementing a learning strategy, you might have overlooked the fact that people could forget the information shared with them. But as studies have shown, up to 90% of your investment could be being wasted. Including experiential learning as part of your learning opportunities will ensure knowledge and skills are built, used, and, most importantly, remembered.

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