How to make learning stick: a guide to 'sticky learning' 

Sophia Wichtowska, Content Writer

'Sticky learning' is a popular new buzzword in workplace training, but the concept is nothing new. When educators teach new knowledge or skills, their aim has always been for participants to be able to retain that knowledge and apply it. 


Presenting content in a way that makes it memorable can be the key to a successful lesson. Armed with the knowledge of the tools designers use to shape the learning experience, those responsible for learning and development can select quality learning content that will have an impact. 

Research on learning and retention

In the 1960s, the ‘learning pyramid’ first appeared in educational research, and remains popular among learning designers and educators. The theory is attributed to the National Training Laboratory, although there are many different versions. Essentially, the pyramid is a guide as to the types of activities that are most effective for memory and retention:

Today, psychologists and neuroscientists argue that the pyramid is oversimplified and that a vast range of variables can affect memory, such as age, what facilitators instruct the subjects to do and a learner’s current knowledge of the lesson content. 

While learning designers and facilitators can take steps to improve retention, the responsibility also lies with the learner. Strategies such as focusing attention, structuring and organizing key points, and visualizing concepts can all help participants to recall important facts.

How to improve retention and memory

While the accuracy of the data reported in the learning pyramid is questionable by today's understanding of learning science, there are features those responsible for learning and development can look out for to select learning materials that will be 'sticky'. The following tips will guide you through the process:

1. Aim for personalized content

Personalizing learning is the difference between content being engaging or boring. Content needs to address an individual’s learning needs as accurately as possible, and advancing technology is helping to make this more achievable.

If learning material targets the individual needs of an employee, they are far more likely to be engaged with the content, and hence more likely to remember it. If they see the knowledge as relevant and useful to their work, they are far more likely to recall it and use it in the future.

2. Look for a single, clear learning objective 

A critical yet often overlooked element of learning design is ensuring that a lesson focuses on one learning objective and sticks to it. When a session includes more than one objective, it lacks clarity and it becomes more challenging for learners to retain the material.

For any lesson to be effective, designers need to set the learning objective out at the beginning, and the learner needs to be made aware of what it is they are focusing on from the outset. 

Look for learning materials that map out learning objectives for each lesson, and make it clear how participants are going to reach that goal. 

3. Look for scaffolded learning

Scaffolded learning is structured and supports participants in reaching the desired objective of the lesson. Designers can scaffold knowledge through the inclusion of certain activities or resources. They can design tasks in the session to gradually build towards participants demonstrating their understanding of the final objective. 

Before selecting learning materials for your colleagues, scan over the contents of the lessons. Does each lesson guide participants to help them reach the ultimate learning objective, or do the activities seem muddled and unfocused? 

4. Look for audio-visual, or storytelling elements

Attaching new facts to music or visuals makes it much easier for the brain to recall them. We can remember details from text alone, but audio-visual elements help to cement new facts in memory. 

When learning designers weave in a storytelling element, this is equally effective. Research shows that when teachers incorporate storytelling into learning, they help learners to retain content, no matter what their learning style is.

Uri Hasson from Princeton explains that a story is the only way to activate specific parts of the brain. When hearing a story, the listener automatically turns what they pick up into their version, which forms part of their experience. We are wired to listen to stories as a way of passing on and remembering essential facts, which is why a narrative structure works so well in a learning context.  

5. Encourage employees to develop good learning habits

While a well-designed course that meets an employee’s learning needs will significantly improve retention, learners can also take steps to help with their memory and recall

Attention is one of the essential parts of memory. For information to move from the short term memory to the long term memory, participants have to actively engage with that information, ideally in a place free from distractions. 

Organizing new facts can also help the brain with memory. If participants take notes while they complete online courses, or they collect additional resources, encourage them to keep materials on related topics in one place, or find ways of grouping the resources.

Using colors to organize information into groups can also help to jog the memory, and help learners to recall large amounts of information associated with that color.

A one stop shop for all things training, Go1 makes it easy to compare the best training options available, and find the right resources for your professional development, compliance, and business training needs. 

With courses that cover numerous business functions, we help your staff grow into their role by unlocking their potential. Content is at all levels of difficulty and is suitable for any employee, in any department, in any region.

Sophia is a freelance writer who specialises in thought leadership, opinion pieces and content creation for learning publications. Her work focuses on the latest research in learning theory and practice. She regularly contributes articles on workplace learning and professional development to the Go1 blog. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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