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A Foolproof Formula for Helping Learning Stick

Recently I came across an interview with Stella Collins, a learning psychologist, and she talked about how the LEARNS(S) acronym can help trainers remember techniques that help lessons "stick." It's a great acronym, so I thought I'd share it with all of you.

Learning Retention


The L stands for linking, which is a warm-up step to get brain neurons firing. Basically, it means linking the new topic to what people already know. The eye-opener for me is how effective it is to ask questions that require students to guess. Even if someone guesses wrong, it is still useful for linking as long as they get the correct answer shortly after.

Thought-provoking questions or polls are excellent ways to introduce a new topic and link the new material to people's own experiences and what they already know. For example, you could begin a training segment with a question about people's previous experience (such as good and bad experiences as customers, or a time when they were put on a long hold), or use a "Can you imagine…" question, or even something like, "Which of these options do you think is the right response in x situation?" This technique makes the new material more approachable and less demanding on learner's thought processes.


Both positive and negative emotions give learning a significant impact. Even fear is okay as long as it is not overwhelming. Stella Collins talked about the powerful "Escape Method," which is when you give learners information that makes them think, "Oh wow, that's a bit scary. I don't want to do that." And then you give them the steps out of that scariness. The scared feeling followed by an escape from the scare helps learners better remember the content. Any emotion, except for overwhelming emotions, can make the learning more "sticky."


Anchors are about building deliberate links to other things so that when learners think about the other thing, they automatically connect it to the new material. For instance, I've written about the saying, "Eat the frog" in connection with avoiding procrastination.

(If you have a frog to eat, it's better to eat it and get it done rather than letting the dread of eating it hang over you all day and drain your energy.) When we've talked about this in training, participants will then tell each other, even months later, to "eat the frog," and that's automatic shorthand for them to tackle their biggest, scariest task first. We have anchored that concept in the idea of eating frogs - a strong visual that is memorable. This is an example of behavioral conditioning in practice and the power of metaphor in making learning "sticky."

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When we are learning something new, we are creating new neural connections in our brains, and these connections are fragile. To make them stronger, we have to go over the new learning again and again, so that myelin sheets build up around the neuron, helping them fire better. The key to leveraging repetition is having the learner do something to repeat the information rather than just listening to the instructor repeat the information. The activity has to be in the learner's brain. Spaced practice, summarizing, paraphrasing, quizzing, and rehearsing are all good repetition activities to help new learning stick.


We remember what is new and filter out what is boring-the things that we've seen time and time again. This means that trainers and training designers have to make the information they're teaching fresh and novel. "Eat the frog" is a novel idea that helps the concept of doing what's hard first be new and memorable. Stella Collins talked about drawing out ideas on a flip chart rather than using prepared slides as something different and novel that can make the information more memorable. And people are more likely to repeat what is novel by telling others about it, making the learning even more "sticky."


Stories do many of the things that the LEARNS acronym already covered. Stories create links to what we already know. They develop emotions (if told well). They link together a beginning, middle, and end. They often have repeatable anchors. We tend to repeat good stories. And stories are often novel. Additionally, stories create pictures in our heads, so they are visual; and humans respond to good stories, creating their own meanings that help the learning stick.


This is the (S), a bonus S in the acronym. Learning solidifies when we sleep.  Chunking the material so that people can sleep in between chunks is helpful. It's another good reason for daytime napping! But we should also think about when learning happens. Afternoon training sessions may be more effective than morning ones since they are closer to when people will be going to sleep - although sleep is still likely to be many hours away. Or, what is more likely and doable, we recommend that learners briefly review the information before they go to sleep, and maybe we give them a cheat sheet or job aid that summarizes the day's learning to help in the before-sleep review.

Linking, Emotion, Anchor, Repetition, Novel, Stories, and Sleep = LEARNSS

How many of these ingredients are included in your training? Where can you add more of these ingredients to make your training more "sticky"? It is a simple acronym, but very powerful.