Your company delivers an expensive new training program to employees and then, like any smart company, spends the next few months measuring the effects.

Immediately after sales training, you find your newly trained salespeople are only using two of the six selling approaches that training presented to them. Or six months after you trained your front-desk hotel staff, you discover that right after training, they started applying some of the customer-service strategies you taught them, but have now abandoned them and it’s back to “business as usual.”

Frustrating? Costly? Infuriating? Yes, it all of those things, and worse. How can you get trainees to absorb more of the information you give them, and increase the chances that information will “stick” and be put into use for the long term?

Cognitive load theory

According to psychologists who have studied how people learn (like Professor Ton de Jong at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, John Sweller at the University of New South Wales and many others), the human brain can be expected to absorb a relatively small percentage of the information delivered in a learning situation – at times as little as 10 percent.

But it is possible to improve that percentage dramatically.

To understand how that percentage can be increased, it is important to understand cognitive load theory, which is a way of understanding the effect sensory inputs have on your ability to process information and learn. When your senses are processing a lot of input, they filter how much information gets passed on into your short-term memory.

As an example in training, your learners are dealing with a lot of input that is competing with the information you want to teach. They’re adjusting their eyes to see your slides, getting distracted by other trainees at their tables, trying to get comfortable in their seats and maybe even getting their first gulp of coffee.

When information does get around that sensory/cognitive load, it makes it to your short-term memory, where you think about it. You judge it and if it is memorable, it then gets passed into your long-term memory where we can use it later.

To summarize — if a learner decides that information is important when it is in short-term memory, he or she will unconsciously transfer it to long-term memory. That information becomes what he or she learns because of training.

So, how long does information reside in short-term memory? The answer to that will probably surprise you, because new information only gets processed for between 10 and 15 seconds in short-term memory. If that information doesn’t stick during that time, it is lost.

So, think of short-term memory as a kind of buffer zone that fills up quickly, and then empties as new information flows in.

How to get information into long-term memory

• Mnemonic devices – Back when you were a student, you might have memorized the sentence, “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” to help you memorize the planets in our solar system in the order in which they appear from the sun.

Acronyms are useful in training too. For example, the acronym AIDA (standing for attention, interest, desire and action) is sometimes used to remind sales trainees of different stages of making a sale.

• Participation in shared group activities is another effective way to reinforce concepts and help them move into long-term memory. So are quizzes and self-tests delivered at key moments during training that reinforce concepts and skills.

• A library for trainees to use once training is done can be very effective in making sure key concepts move into long-term memory. For example, you can create an online content library for field technicians that explains procedures and concepts that were covered in training, though probably not fully absorbed.

• Let trainees tell stories that explain experiences they have had that relate to a concept or skill you are teaching. (“Here’s what I once did when a customer was having that problem . . . “)

Storytelling reinforces key concepts for the person who is telling the story and for the people who are listening too.

• In scenario-based learning, present a simulated situation and let trainees work through and try solutions. This helps learners realize, “If this happens, this is how I will handle it.”

• Certificates and certifications allow trainees to feel satisfied and rewarded for learning skills or behaviors. When trainees have been recognized for learning important information, it tends to stick.

Include games, too

Games resonate especially well with millennials, although everyone likes them. They work much better than bombarding trainees with information. For example, you can have trainees practice new skills in a virtual environment that replicates one of your stores.

And add a competitive element, because competitive games can help training concepts stick. Healthy competition, in which learners try to outperform other trainees, can go a long way toward getting learning to stick. For example, you can give a quiz and keep score on a leaderboard until someone wins.

Evaluating training programs can boil down to one simple, but somewhat profound, question: Why are you spending time and money on training if nothing changes?

There are many ways to get a better return-on-investment from training. You can revise your materials, hire more energetic trainers, send trainees off to a weekend retreat and take other steps. All good ideas, but ultimately unlikely to provide a big payback unless you make sure you are delivering training that sticks.

Brannon Dreher is a client engagement manager at Tortal Training, where he provides blended learning solutions for companies. Visit to learn more. This column was originally published in Inside Business, the Hampton Roads Business Journal.