What Works in Training: Retrieval Practice
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What Works in Training: Retrieval Practice

With this month’s research-proven training topic – retrieval practice – we look at changing the focus of training from getting information INTO people’s minds to getting information OUT OF people’s minds. In reality, training needs to be a balance between exposing people to new information (i.e., processes, systems, techniques, strategies, etc.) and helping them use that information to do their jobs better.

Training sometimes forgets about learning transfer to the job and focuses solely on the exposure—as if it is the training participant’s failing if they don’t remember information the trainer covered. No it is not. The major reason we do training is to help participants improve their on-the-job performance. Retrieval practice helps us remember this.

Retrieval Training

The most common form of retrieval practice is tests and quizzes, but it also takes the form of scenarios, simulations, role-playing, reviews, games, flashcards, and any other activity that causes participants to retrieve information from their memory. The beginning of the day review activity that causes participants to reflect back and recall important points from the previous day’s instruction, and the end of the day review activity focusing on that day’s important points are great examples of non-test retrieval practices.

One of my favorite retrieval practices is in the one-minute review activities that I have discussed in several previous month’s articles. One form is to use signals to indicate answers to questions. For instance, make a statement and have everyone hold their thumbs-up if it is true and thumbs-down if it is false. Better yet, give every participant a set of index cards that have colors or letters on them and have them hold up the card that corresponds to the correct answer of your question. If you want to use an inexpensive individual “white board” for each participant, place a piece of paper or cardboard in a page protector and have participants use dry erase markers on the outside of the page protector. Participants hold up their answer for the trainer to see and then erase (with paper towels or tissues) and re-use the same protector throughout training. This gives the trainer a better view of whether participants “get it” or not, allowing the trainer and/or participants to go back and review information that needs it.

A few key points about conducting retrieval practices:

  • Feedback is essential for good retrieval practice. Participants need to know if their retrieval was successful or not, and it if was not successful, why not? That helps them build good retrieval routes to correct information. The more immediate the feedback, the better.
  • Retrieval practice should engage all participants, not just one participant who is being called upon.
  • The best retrieval practice is conducted at spaced intervals over time. Research shows that even a few repetitions spaced out over time can increase retention by 100% or more. Build upon each day’s learning in a multi-day course. Go back and ask people questions the day after training is completed, and the next day, and the day after as well. Send out emails with questions to be completed and returned, and ask the same questions, or variations thereof, for several days. Do a multi-day scavenger hunt where participants have to provide answers to uncover the next clue that leads to some kind of reward. Be sure to give feedback each day so that the correct information is practiced. It is an old saying, but true, “Practice makes perfect.”
  • Retrieval practice should focus on important information. Do agents really need to remember what year the company was founded? I’ve not heard very many contacts where that has come up, and it is generally fairly easy information to look up on the company website if it does come up. But agents probably DO need to know how to handle an irate customer or the process steps to complete various actions they regularly need to complete. Those are the activities that retrieval practice should focus upon.
  • Retrieval practice should be aligned with the job context. The more similar to job circumstances, the more effective the retrieval practice will be in transferring to the job.

Retrieval practice does not always have to be a test with a score. It can and should be conducted regularly with a number of creative activities that engage all participants in practice and not just a single participant on the hot seat with a question. Retrieval practice with appropriate job context cues and feedback increases long-term retention of content, while improving participants’ thinking and application skills, organization of knowledge, and transfer of knowledge to new concepts. Thus, it improves not only their memory of the content but also their understanding, which is a primary step in transferring the learning to the workplace. And spacing out retrieval practice at regular intervals helps reinforce the retrieval routes, making it faster and easier to remember and understand. Retrieval practice is not just getting information INTO participants’ minds but more about getting information OUT and used appropriately on the job.

If you want a list of research sources or more information on retrieval practice (along with some activity ideas), email me at ecarr@icmi.com. I’m happy to share more information. And if you have a great activity you use for retrieval practice, be sure to share it in the comments.



Topics: Learning & Development

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