How Training Reinforces Old Skills and Discourages New Ones

“The training was life changing.”

That’s how Matt felt about the week-long leadership course he had just attended. It was the most inspirational training he had ever experienced.

Now, Matt’s head was full of new ideas. He was excited to use what he learned to help his team achieve unprecedented levels of service.

Fast forward a few months and Matt's excitement had waned.

I asked Matt what he had implemented from the leadership course. My question was met with a prolonged silence.

Finally, Matt said, “If I have to be honest with you, I haven’t used anything.”

Matt’s story isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s typical. Companies spend thousands of dollars to send employees to training and nothing happens.

They hope for better customer service, better leadership, and better results. All they really get is a big training bill. Even worse, the training might actually reinforce old habits rather than build new ones.

Let’s explore why this happens and what you can do to change it.

The Vortex

Matt was buried in work when he returned to the office after the week-long training. He faced a mountain of phone calls, emails, status meetings, updates, and project work. 

This is hardly unusual. Most of us face increased workloads after attending training. Like most of us, Matt worked hard to grind through it.

This whirlwind of post-training activity is called the Vortex. It heightens fatigue and stress levels and sucks up all of your attention. 

We revert to our old habits when fatigue and stress levels rise. This delays the application of anything you learned in training. Unfortunately, this delay happens at the most critical time for learning.

The Vortex consumes the time we know we should spend applying what we've just learned. We push aside the new lessons for a later date when we're more caught up. That date rarely arrives.


Learning & Forgetting

A 2006 experiment by Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke revealed how we easily forget what we learn.

Students at Washington University in St. Louis were asked to memorize poetry passages. Some students were then asked to study the passages for additional periods while other students were immediately tested on their recollection of the passage.

All students were tested again five minutes later to see how much of the poetry they could recall.

The students who spent more time studying fared a little better, recalling an average of 81 percent of the poetry vs. 75 percent for the students who had studied once and then were tested.

An interesting thing happened a week later when the researchers tested the students again.

The students who studied once and then were tested retained 14 percent more than the students were spent more time studying!

This experiment shows us two things about learning and forgetting.

First, testing is critical to long-term memory. Testing can come in many forms. It might be a knowledge quiz, but it could also be opportunities to apply new knowledge to a real problem.

Second, we forget information quickly. The students had all forgotten roughly half of the poetry passage after just one week. Now, imagine how much content from a week-long or even a day-long course would be forgotten after just one week!

Unfortunately, the post-training Vortex ensures any on-the-job application will be delayed and much of what we learned will be forgotten.


Improving Training

The ideal learning environment involves intense practice, smaller chunks of learning, or both.

Training should also focus on helping learners solve current problems. In this way, the new learning isn't a distraction from the post-training Vortex; it's a solution.

There are many ways to achieve this, but you have to think beyond the traditional event-based training module where participants attend a class or take an e-learning and that’s it.

Here are a few examples:

A flipped learning approach trains content by video or e-learning and gives participants practical opportunities to apply what they learned.

I’ve had success training contact center agents via a series of one-hour webinars. Each session focuses on one specific skill. The sessions are scheduled two weeks apart to give participants time to apply what they learned in between.

An action learning approach can also be highly effective. Here, participants work on a real-world problem. They’re given access to self-paced learning and real-time coaching as they need it. 

The key to all of these approaches is less study time and more immediate application.

Changing the traditional event-based learning model takes guts, but it can be highly effective. Your participants will retain more, apply more, and achieve more.

For more information on how learning can be improved, check out this short video on