One of the biggest challenges of employee training programs is getting the material to “stick.” If your trainees can’t recall relevant material in the instant they need it, the training was not effective enough.

For example, if your employees take a safety course but still forget to wear the appropriate protective clothing (or wear it incorrectly) before a risky procedure, then that training has failed. Another example:  If you teach your managers soft skills to guide a team and yet they still revert to their old habits when it comes to project time, then that soft skills training has not “stuck.”

There are many actions that can be taken within the training to help improve retention – dividing content into bite sized pieces and presenting statistics better, for example. But there are also steps you can take outside of the training milieu to help people recall their training at the appropriate time. In fact, psychologists have studied different recall processes and found the kind that works best—and why.

Why Reminders Are Needed: Poor Free Recall

In studies of memory, scientists have found that memories can be brought forth in three different ways: free recall, cued recall, and recognition. Each is thought to tap different mental processes, and so they vary in terms of difficulty and susceptibility to error.

Of the three, free recall is the most challenging. We use free call when, for example, we try to remember shopping list  items from memory or try to recall the names of some group members we just met, without any reminders. Without any such reminders, we default to free recall—and it tends to be the most difficult method, as well as the most prone to error.

Free recall is also very context sensitive. For example, if you’ve memorized a safety protocol, say, while sitting in a particular room and using a certain set of gear, your recall will work much better when you are in that same situation. The more the situation differs, the less likely recall will occur.

And that’s the situation with most training: Employees learn a bunch of information, but they are then expected to apply it in a different context. That’s why reminders are needed: free recall is not dependable. (As one trainer quipped, “With free recall, you get what you pay for!”)

Don’t Make Those Reminders Too Explicit

Let’s say you’re convinced you need some sort of reminders and refreshers. What form should they take? If you are like most training directors and HR professionals, you’ll probably resort to three things: signage, memos, and “refresher” courses.

There’s a problem with these methods when the information is too explicit. After people have learned something, they also begin to get a feeling of recognition. The material becomes familiar and, the more they encounter it, the more certain they are of having seen it before.

Getting a feeling of recognition is very easy, especially when compared to free recall. But recognition memory can be a false friend. People are too easily lulled into a sense of “been there, done that.” They might even forget large portions of the information but still retain a sense of familiarity.

So all those signs, memos, and refreshers reminding people of important points from their training? They might actually become counterproductive. The point is not to stop using these tools but rather to stop spoon-feeding the information. In fact, the more you remind employees of the information, the less they will depend on their own memories—and forget their training when it is most crucial.

The Importance of Cues

The best kind of reminder uses the third kind of recall: cued recall. In the lab, cued recall is measured by seeing how many items a person correctly recalls after being given a related cue. For example, after memorizing a list of words, a subject might be given the initial letters of those words and asked to recall the rest of the word in each case. Recall using cues is easier than free recall since the cues act as “hints.” But it also engages memory mechanisms in the brain better than recognition.

So how can you use cued recall to make training stick?

Simple Signs

Signs can be a great cue. The best signs are simple, providing a reminder without restating  everything an employee should know. For example, a simple sign that says “Safety First” or “Did you remember your personal protective equipment?” will work much better than a text-heavy poster outlining all safety equipment and how to wear it. Simple signs cue correct behavior without rehashing all of their training.

Visual Associations

Many of the best cues are visual. Some examples: Signs should have icons based on common associations. Compliance reminders can have images of required forms or pictures from course material. Management best practices can be reviewed with short, entertaining videos. And those periodic reminders of what constitutes prohibited conduct? A short video example can do wonders. Icons, images, and videos can all prompt recall of one’s training.

Quiz Contests

Instead of sending out memos and emails with reminders, make a short quiz on the relevant information. You can even offer a small incentive to anyone who aces it. The context of the questions will activate cued recall, and the act of recalling the information itself will help employees remember it.

Structured Environments

Context is, itself, a kind of cue. When you can, arrange the environment in ways that can jog their memory. For example, was there a handout in your training course on team building? Make it into a poster to hang in the conference room. Are employees forgetting the tips that came with their wellness program? Stock the break room with easily accessible healthy snacks. Put the coffee machine or office supplies farther away to encourage getting up and stretching. A few simple nudges can go a long way.

Remembering the information from one’s training is important.  What you do to follow up any employee training program is almost as important as what you do during training. Using aids to help employees recall their training will help ensure that you haven’t wasted those precious budget dollars.


Ryan Eudy

Written by Ryan Eudy

Since joining ej4 in 2005, Ryan has operated in every facet of the business. It is this experience that Ryan utilizes to manage ej4’s daily operations. Ryan offers innovative solutions and has a unique understanding of matching client needs with the right performance improvement tools to change targeted behaviors.

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