How would you answer the question, “Why do you thinklearners forget what they’ve learned so quickly?” This is the question that Charles Henderson asks in the Linkedin Learning, Education and Training Professionals Group discussion. He has received nearly 700 (and counting) comments which seems quite a lot for a Linkedin group. He must have hit a nerve.

Maybe it’s the request to keep comments to 10 words or less. Maybe it’s the northern hemisphere summer down-time that gives some Linkedin members more opportunity to contemplate this kind of question. I think it’s more likely that this is a question that cuts deeply into the psyche of educators and trainers. Respondents are not doubting the implicit assumptions that students and trainees do not retain everything they learn and that this is an important issue for schools and businesses. Rather, they readily acknowledge the problem and seem defensive about offering solutions. 

When I asked Mr. Henderson about the large response to his question, he said,

I guess I'm not alone in believing that retention is the biggest challenge in the L&D profession. Our industry is tasked with changing the results of our organizations, schools and communities and we inevitably fall short if the learner doesn't retain what is taught.

The responses run the gamut from, in effect, saying that learners are stupid and lazy to saying that instructors are incompetent and ineffective to saying that senior management doesn’t know and doesn’t care. Most of the responses seem to be an attempt at rationalizing the problem and placing blame.

In a way, I think everyone is right and no one is right. If by “forgetting”, we mean the failure to apply
what was learned in school or on the job, then there are many individual and organizational factors that MP900422803 contribute to this. It’s not one thing. It’s learners who don’t know why they need to know. It’s instructors who do not have reasonable expectations. It’s the failure of managers to encourage and support learning. It’s having no opportunity to apply new learning within a short period of time. And it’s because nobody is holding the learner and organization accountable for applying learning. We know from research that when these are the conditions, application of learning is highly unlikely. This is true for technical skills as well as managerial and leadership effectiveness.

Learning and the retention of learning cannot be left to trainers alone. Organizations as a whole must create an environmnet that supports the learning process. Leaders must make learning a core value, managers must facilitate and support learning for their direct reports, trainers must provide learning interventions appropriate for the content, and learners must participate enthusiastically in the process. Retention of learning is a systems problem, not an individual employee or individual trainer problem.