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How to retain more of what you learn at work

Whether you’re attending an interesting lecture, conference, or training session, here’s how to get better at remembering—and accessing—what you learn.

How to retain more of what you learn at work
[Source photo: SvetaZi/iStock]
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Organizations spend a whopping $82.5 billion on training annually, or $1,111 per employee, according to Statista. Chances are, your organization is also investing in your training. Maybe you attend virtual conferences, webinars, or perhaps you’re back on the road traveling to an in-person or hybrid meeting. No matter the format, how do you maximize this investment in your learning?

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As a learning development strategist, I recognize that training is only successful if the learning sticks. Here we will discuss ways to be a more active learner by using strategies of retrieval, spacing, and linking, which are critical for learning to last. 

How often do you find yourself listening to a keynote speaker, thinking, “wow, that’s a great idea, I’ve got to try it.” But then you get back to your daily grind, an inbox full of emails, and urgencies of the day. You start to forget, and that great idea is no longer top of mind. 

According to cognitive scientists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel in their book Make it Stick, we forget about 70% of what we read or hear, and “a central challenge to improving the way we learn is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting.” 

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Most conferences and online seminars are focused on success during the session, without sufficient attention to what happens later. The challenge for me and my colleagues in the learning profession is to build programming that helps learners put shared ideas into practice well after an event is over.

Here are some ways to make the most of your next learning opportunity:

Make Time for Reflection

Reflection is a critical part of learning. Hearing a presentation and memorizing information is not as effective as reflecting on the information you heard. When you listen to a presentation and think about what you have just heard, you’re more likely to remember the ideas shared. 

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After a presentation, take a moment to recall the main takeaways. Think about how you can apply them to your job, team, or industry. 

Ask yourself: 

  • What are the key ideas?
  • How can I relate these to what I already know?
  • How can I put them into practice or apply them at work?
  • What can I do differently?
  • Who else may be interested in this information?

Jot down your answers, and then, following the training, come back to your notes from time to time. After forgetting to implement wonderful ideas from a recent conference, I started a “big ideas” notebook where I jot down key takeaways. When I reread my notes, I apply the “old” information to my current situation, which helps keep the information fresh.

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If you have a copy of the speaker’s PowerPoint presentation, you can use it to reflect on the key ideas. Think about how those ideas may apply to a challenge or situation at work. 

Share your learning

Summarizing and sharing your knowledge with someone is also a good way to retrieve information. Type up your key takeaways, review them with your team, boss, or peers, and suggest how you can put relevant ideas into practice. The best way to learn is to teach. Grab the presentation deck and walk through it with your team and brainstorm how to apply the learning.

Approach learning as a team when attending a conference by dividing up what sessions you will attend. Schedule some time for a follow-up discussion to compare notes. If you’re not attending as a team, create a learning circle with friends or colleagues at the conference. Knowing you will report back on what you are learning will make you more accountable and help you pay more attention. Discussing key takeaways will also help cement the critical information, so you retrieve it more easily.

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Apply the learning

Think about how you can apply what you are learning. During and after the session, link the learning to a situation at work. For example, I took a public speaking class, and while I didn’t have a formal presentation immediately following, I applied the learning when I spoke at my next meeting. 

Problem-solving is another excellent way to learn. Think of a real-life scenario and use the concepts shared to brainstorm possible solutions.

Think ahead

As you get ready for your next training opportunity, plan to keep the learning going. Space out the learning by scheduling follow-up emails to appear in your inbox as reminders about a concept you learned. Some conference planners even mail postcards a few weeks after the conference to remind you of your action steps. Stay in touch with speakers, keynotes, and the people you meet in the hallway or virtually.

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Jennifer Lewi, MBA, CAE, ACC, is the staff vice president of membership and professional development at the School Nutrition Association. She is also a trained career development coach.