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Use It or Lose It: A Lesson for Instructional Designers

Posted by Carla Torgerson, MEd, MBA on July 25, 2018 at 9:00 AM

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I was cleaning out my basement and found the notes and articles I’d kept from my last college degree. Just by the fact that I kept these notes you have probably guessed that I was an eager student. I did my readings (most of the time), studied hard, and engaged fully in my classes.

It was an in-person, cohort-based MBA program that I took in the evenings while working full time. I have always felt it was an excellent educational environment. I was working full time which meant I could apply what I was learning to my work. My classmates and I also had significant work experience, which we were encouraged to bring into class discussions. And it was cohort-based which means I was surrounded by the same eager people for nearly two years, learning from their wisdom and experience.

Overall, I felt it was a really great educational environment and I learned a ton. So I was amazed when I opened this box of notes in my basement and nearly none of it even looked familiar. I know all about the forgetting curve, so I am very aware that people forget things quickly, and I did graduate seven years ago. But for a learning that was so applied, so intense, and so long in duration, I had assumed that some of those favorite articles or notes would be familiar.

I am absolutely not questioning the value of my degree. It was worth every minute and every penny of those grueling 21 months. It has helped me in countless ways. I see business problems more deeply and clearly. I can speak with finance executives in ways I never could before. I understand cost-benefit analysis and trade-offs in new ways. Ultimately, I remember the concepts even if the details are forgotten.

I also deeply remember the details of those theories or concepts I have used a lot since graduating. Like Kotter’s change management model, and Hofstede’s work on cultural values. The point here is that I only remember the specific details of those things that I went on to use a lot. Of the other things I learned, I can remember the concepts, but not the details.

The lesson for all instructional professionals is not that lecture doesn’t work (it can at times), but rather the importance of what our learners do with that knowledge after the training is over. Do they say “that was a nice session” and then put the notes in a drawer OR do they go back to work and say “I just learned about a new way to handle this customer objection” and then try it out immediately?

If they use what they’ve learned on a regular basis, it will stick. If they don’t, it just won’t, no matter how engaged the participants are or how interactive the class. With the next class you design I challenge you to do two things… First, ask the stakeholder how this learning will be applied on the job, and don’t accept a general answer. Look for real work activities that would enable the learner to apply these concepts on the job. And second, ask yourself if there is any way you can influence people to use what they are learning in those situations. My favorite approach (although it can be difficult) is to get the person’s upline involved in reinforcing it regularly.

As instructional designers it is easy to focus on the class or eLearning, making it as engaging and interactive as we can. But really ask yourself how the learner will apply their learning on the job, and thereby make it stick.

Topics: learning retention, application