Retention or Transfer of Learning – What’s up?


Do people retain what they learn?


It’s a continual struggle to prove the value of learning let alone validate whether someone not only learned from training but are actually applying it. In my personal and professional experience of courses, workshops, seminars and other learning odes, most people learn but few actually do anything with the learning.


So retention of learning is one thing. What’s more important is transfer of learning to create change in behaviour, values, attitudes, skills, competency.


Matt Moore, cites the figures at around 10% transfer of knowledge and refers to a seminal work (Ford, J.K. & Weissbein, D.A. (1997). Transfer of training: an updated review and analysis. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 10(2), 22?41. doi:10.1111/j.1937-8327.1997.tb00047.x). Matt also suggests the following references to expand knowledge in this area:


Vanessa Lynne actually covered this topic off in her thesis for her Master in Adult Ed research. She states:

In a workplace setting, transfer of knowledge to the job is notoriously poor (Tennant, 1997; Lim and Morris, 2006). Proving it is also very difficult with the main measures of effectiveness being return on investment (Kopp, 2006). Through his research Kopp (2006) estimates that about 30% of new knowledge is transferred to the job. Lim and Morris (2006) are even less optimistic about the transfer of knowledge citing Georgenson, 1982, Holton & Baldwin, 2000 and Kuprits, 2002 in estimating that only about 10% of knowledge is transferred to the workplace. According to Buckley and Caple (1994) transfer will increase if participants are involved in all aspects of the planning of their training." (Lynne, V, 2008. Teaching and Learning Together – Emergent Learning in a Workplace Setting).

Vanessa’s main finding overall is contained in that last sentence. If people are engaged in the process, what they learn is relevant to them and they will both retain it and use it. There are other factors of course – the amount of support they get once back in the workplace, their degree of attachment to the "old way" and so forth. The closest Vanessa could get to a theory that underpins the notion that engagement = retention and application is the work that Stuart Hase and others are doing around what they call "heutagogy". New thinking around adult learning is very refreshing.


As learning professional we are often so concerned with the front-end from a process and content point of view that it serves us well to remember involving learners as much as possible throughout the entire learning experience  from planning to post delivery and beyond.  When we can truly engage and demonstrate clear specific outcomes then we are in a stronger negotiating position and have served our learners well.