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After Training: The Zeigarnik Effect

I often use follow-up activities after training I conduct.   Most often I find I have to force myself to get this done.  I’m ready to move on to the next project, to design the next training, to write the next newsletter.  Many trainers tell me the same thing.  They are ready to move on rather than follow up with previous training.   

I recently conducted training on storytelling for trainers.  At the end of the training, I assigned “homework” to develop a short story or illustration and then schedule an individual phone call with me to review/practice the story and to receive my feedback.  I waited for the calls so I could listen to each person’s story.  And waited...and waited.  Nobody got in touch with me to set up the phone call until I sent a reminder, and in many cases, more than one reminder.

On a similar note, I have recently conducted several Making Learning Stick workshops for trainers.  The full day sessions have been very well received: participants have been attentive and receptive and the evaluations have been really good.  I’m pleased that the information I’ve shared and the experience I’ve facilitated has been a good one for these trainers.  

In these train-the-trainer sessions I have asked each participant to email me later and describe the situation/training when they have used at least one of the techniques described in the training.  I have even promised an attractive Certificate of Transfer.  How many responses do you suppose I’ve received?  None.  Not a single one.  These are typical of the challenges we face when we try to reinforce and continue the learning after the formal learning event is over.  

Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik developed a theory which became known as the Zeigarnik Effect.  Briefly, it says that people are more likely to remember what they have not gotten closure on.  So when, in the learning event, the learning points are summarized and other closing activities are present, theZeigarnik Effect indicates that these closing/closure activities actually make it harder for participants to remember and use what they have learned once they get back on the job.  The Zeigarnik Effect also explains why most trainers are not motivated to follow up after a learning event. 

What to do?  Here are a few suggestions for incorporating the Zeigarnik Effect:

  • Provide incomplete explanations for some of the learning.  Post the complete explanation on a static source, such as a webpage, which participants can refer to during the class and later.  
  • If an action plan or after-training checklist is to be developed, ask trainees to provide 1-2 items for it and stop them before they can do more.
  • Use a stopwatch or clock timer on your phone to help force you to stop before participants are finished.
  • When providing learning points or a list in the training, provide only the first few, and let participants know where and when the rest will be provided.  Maybe this is a new use for social learning tools such as discussion boards and Twitter.  An LMS system can probably be set up to send prompts and reminders automatically.

These suggestions are the opposite of many best practices for designing and conducting learning events.  But maybe if we try to do more of the above, we might find that trainees will more readily remember and use what they have learned.  And maybe trainers will be more motivated to follow up with trainees afterwards. 

While I have known about the Zeigarnik Effect for some time and have used the above suggestions from time to time, I must admit that it is not easy to break lifelong habits.  I’m going to try to do more of this.  Maybe you will too.

Until next time.....

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