Blog>Employee Training

Psychology of Learning: Understanding How Employees Absorb and Retain Training Material

Evgeniya Ioffe - December 31st 2023 - 5 minutes read

In the ever-evolving landscape of workplace development, the intricate dance of imparting knowledge and ensuring its retention by employees remains a pivotal, yet elusive, performance. Dive into the fascinating world of learning psychology as we unravel how to transform transient information into enduring skills and knowledge. Join us on a journey to dissect the art and science of memorability, as we probe the foundations of retention-oriented training, tackle the enigmatic forgetting curve with savvy strategies, and harmonize divergent pedagogical philosophies to sculpt educational experiences that not only engage the mind but, more importantly, stick. Whether you're crafting the blueprint for your next training session or seeking to elevate your organization's learning trajectory, this exploration offers a treasure trove of insights that promise to change the very way you perceive employee education.

The Science of Learning Retention in Employee Education

Learning retention is the anchored understanding and the preservation of knowledge after the initial learning experience. It represents the degree to which an individual can recall or apply the information they've been exposed to over a period of time. In the context of employee training, learning retention isn't just about employees remembering facts; it’s about integrating new skills and knowledge into their day-to-day work to improve performance and productivity. The effectiveness of employee education hinges on the extent to which material is not merely presented, but deeply internalized and accessible for future use.

One crucial psychological factor impacting learning retention is the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. This theory stipulates that memory retention declines over time, following an initial rapid loss of information if no effort is made to retain it. Ebbinghaus' extensive research indicates that within 24 hours, individuals forget approximately 70% of new information if they do not actively review the material. This curve is not linear but rather logarithmic, which means the sharpest decline occurs soon after learning, and then tapers off. Hence, for businesses, the implication is stark: without adopting methods to mitigate the effects of this natural forgetting process, the investment in employee training risks substantial diminishment.

Understanding the implications of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve in employee education necessitates a strategic approach to training that accounts for the curve's 'half-life', a measure of how quickly learned information loses its potency without reinforcement. Training programs must be designed with regular, spaced intervals of repetition to combat this decline. Additionally, applying training material in practical, job-related tasks shortly after the learning event can help cement the information, making it more resistant to the forgetting curve’s impact. Such strategies are essential for learning to endure beyond the training session, fostering both individual expertise and organizational growth.

The Four Pillars of Retention-Oriented Training

Fostering interest and motivation in learners is the cornerstone of any retention-oriented training program. When employees are genuinely interested in the subject matter, their engagement levels soar, leading to a deeper understanding and longer retention of knowledge. However, one potential downside is that not all training material inherently sparks interest. To combat this, trainers can create relevance by connecting the material to employees' roles, aspirations, or personal growth, aiming to trigger intrinsic motivation.

Repetition serves as a critical lever in the retention mechanism. It underlines the old adage "practice makes perfect," reinforcing neural pathways and making recall more natural over time. The flip side is that excessive repetition can lead to boredom and disengagement, which detracts from the learning experience. Therefore, the challenge lies in incorporating repetition in a manner that remains fresh and appealing—such as through spaced repetition, varied practice exercises, or gamification—to maintain learner enthusiasm while solidifying memory.

Lastly, the adoption of multi-channel learning caters to the varied sensory preferences among learners. By engaging multiple senses through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic activities, trainers can enhance understanding and memory retention. This approach acknowledges that each employee might have a different preferred learning style; however, it requires more resources and planning to execute well. The key is to strike a balance, offering diverse learning avenues without overwhelming learners with choices, ensuring that all learners can access the training in a way that resonates best with them.

Overcoming the Forgetting Curve with Practical Strategies

Spaced repetition is a formidable ally against the forgetting curve, utilizing the idea that reintroducing material at intervals enhances memory retention. It is more than just repeating facts — it is a calculated reintroduction of concepts following a specific sequence over time. One might employ spaced repetition by breaking a comprehensive training program into shorter sessions with strategically timed follow-ups. These refreshers could take various forms, such as quizzes, discussions, or practical exercises. However, the question lingers: how might organizations tailor these intervals to match the complexity of the content and the varying learning paces of different employees?

Blended learning fuses traditional classroom environments with online resources, creating a hybrid of digital and human instructional interactions. This approach caters to individual learning styles and preferences, leading to improved engagement and information retention. The concept behind blended learning is sound, but implementation requires a delicate balance: How can one ensure that employees are not overwhelmed by the dual demands of digital and in-person learning modalities, and that each is employed optimally to reinforce understanding rather than adding to cognitive load?

Interactive content goes hand-in-hand with employee engagement, and its correlation with learning retention cannot be overstated. Interactive training can include simulations, games, or problem-solving activities that require active participation — all proven to enhance memory recall and application of learned concepts. The challenge and opportunity in this method lie in constructing content that is not only engaging but also reflects real-world scenarios which employees can relate to and apply in their daily tasks. However, we must ponder, what measures can be taken to ensure that the 'fun' element of interactive training does not eclipse the core educational objectives or stray from the overall business goals and training outcomes?

Merging Theories and Approaches for Optimized Learning Experiences

When we bring together the insights from cognitive psychology, adult learning theories, and educational technology, an integrated framework for employee training emerges. This approach is beneficial not only for accommodating a range of learning styles and paces but also for addressing the motivational aspects of learning. For instance, cognitive learning principles suggest that meaningful engagement with the material is essential. Therefore, by incorporating interactive tasks that simulate real-life challenges, employees can actively construct their understanding and apply what they've learned more effectively.

Additionally, considering adult learning principles, which highlight the value of self-directedness and experience in adult education, we can enrich training strategies exponentially. Employees, particularly adults, come with a wealth of personal and professional experiences. Tapping into this can be achieved through collaborative learning environments, such as peer discussions and group projects. These collaborative methods encourage learners to reflect on and articulate their understanding, thereby deepening their comprehension and allowing the collective knowledge within an organization to flourish.

Lastly, integrating educational technology opens the door to adaptive learning paths that are tailored to individual needs. For example, employing a microlearning approach through technology can deliver content in manageable, focused bursts that align with the learner's schedule and attention span, fostering better retention while avoiding cognitive overload. Merging these theories with tech-driven delivery not only offers flexibility and personalization but also empowers employees to take charge of their learning journey, enhancing the overall effectiveness of the training program.


In this article, we explore the psychology of learning and how it impacts employee training. The key takeaways include: the importance of learning retention in integrating new skills and knowledge into daily work, the impact of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and how to mitigate it through strategic training methods, the four pillars of retention-oriented training (interest and motivation, repetition, multi-channel learning), practical strategies to overcome the forgetting curve (spaced repetition, blended learning, interactive content), and the benefits of merging cognitive psychology, adult learning theories, and educational technology for optimized learning experiences.