For years, as an adult educator and trainer, I have been saying that people can remember and use very little of what they hear, a bit more of what they hear and see, and considerably more of what they hear, see, and do.

Typically, one remembers 20 percent of what one hears; 40 percent of what one hears and sees; and 80 percent when hearing, seeing, and doing are all involved. This information is not new; a 1946 reference quoted an earlier article that gave such “seeing” examples as “watching still pictures” and “watching moving pictures.”

Why do I bring this up? Because by and large, education and training are still largely offered in a “tell them and throw in some visuals” mode. Even much of today's Web-based training is little more than lecture transferred to a computer screen. And “interactive” is defined too often as “Q&A.” What's particularly sad about our reliance on “covering the material” is that human beings are enormously equipped to learn, love to learn, and live to learn. The good news is that as meeting planners, trainers, presenters, or educators, we can tap into that learning power and the strength of learning by doing.

In my work as a training designer and workshop facilitator, I have crafted Five Keys to Facilitating Learning. Implementation of the keys — any of them or all — improves the odds that participants can both remember and use the new information in seminars and meetings. The additional good news is that you don't need a degree in advanced training to accomplish the keys. All you need is the desire to do a better job and the willingness to try any of them. Your learners will appreciate your effort!

Key 1: Set the Learning Environment

Did you know that the readiness to learn begins before the session? We know from brain research that the brain is quite busy absorbing its surroundings immediately upon entering them. In the opinion of Quantum Teaching authors Bobbi DePorter, Mark Reardon, and Sarah Singer-Nourie, everything counts. What do learners see when they arrive at the session? What do they hear? How does it feel?

I call this the “room anticipating the learners.” I also think of it as, “Company's coming!” Get the room ready. Use color. Have all materials in place. Put on some music. Arrange the seating in a friendly manner. Get the learners' attention — which is not an easy thing to do these days. Send a signal that this will be interesting and different.

When I am facilitating an educational session, I arrive early. I put on soft music. I use color table covers, colored sticky note, color markers, simple table decorations, and welcome signs. When folks arrive, their materials are at their seats, and I am ready to greet them. Believe me, they notice. They see, hear, and feel welcomed, important, and hopefully ready to at least give me the benefit of the doubt.

Don't overlook the peripherals. If you want to know how much learners are absorbing, place your two index fingers out in front of you and focus on them. Then stretch both your arms out until you can no longer see your fingers with your peripheral vision. If you're like me, your arms are stretched out widely! The brain absorbs everything within your arms, even if it does so subconsciously.

Use the power of the periphery to your learners' advantage. Perhaps you can place pictures or posters in strategic locations. The learning environment that you set from the very outset will pay dividends throughout any session.

Key 2: Activate Prior Learning

We all learn by applying new information to what we already know. To help participants more easily grasp new information, we can activate what they already know about it, either directly or in a related way. Such action warms up the brain and fires up its connections, thus making new information easier to absorb.

I typically activate prior learning during a warm-up segment, so that learning begins immediately. To activate prior learning, I ask participants to tell one other person about a good listener in their own life. What made that person such a good listener? They jotted down the good-listener qualities on sticky notes and placed them on charts. Thus, within the first five minutes of the session, we had a group-generated list of qualities based on their own lives and a springboard to the new information.

Key 3: Use a Variety of Approaches

Howard Gardner, who has developed a theory of multiple intelligences, refers to the standard “single chance” mode of education that is still favored today. Typically, learners receive information by hearing it or seeing it and must “get it.” Instead of a single chance, we facilitators of programs want our learners to have multiple chances to “get it.”

We accomplish this by using a variety of approaches that appeal to the visual, the auditory, and the kinesthetic preferences of learners. A simple approach to multiple-chance learning is to design sessions so that participants hear new information, see it, say it, write it, and do it.

Let's return to the listening workshop example: Participants described good listeners as a result of their conversation. (Discussion is an auditory approach.) They could then view a brief (three-minute) video of three scenarios where people practice effective listening strategies (a visual component). They might then practice the strategies themselves with a partner (a combination of all the preferences, including kinesthetic). By engaging the learners fully across all preferences, we increase what learners can remember and use.

Key 4: Engage Learners in Dialogue

I define a dialogue approach by using the Greek translation of the word dialogue: words between. By talking about what they are learning, participants can give the new information personal meaning, ground it in their own realities, and make it their own.

According to Carla Hannaford, in her book Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, the act of talking about new information helps us anchor new ideas, create neural pathways for them, and remember them.

The simplest way to get folks talking is to use partner interactions. I often use partner interviews to get the dialogue going. “Interview a partner, asking them these two questions: 1) How good a listener are you at work? 2) What's your biggest challenge to listening at work?” Then, after a couple of minutes, they reverse the interview. Energy is high, attention is focused, and the topic of listening is made more relevant to each learner.

After hearing examples of their interviews, I would introduce new information, such as “Seven Strategies for Improving Your Listening Skills at Work.”

Key #5: Reinforce the Learning

We remember best what comes first in a program, followed by what comes last. I like to take advantage of beginnings by activating prior learning and introducing new information. I tap into the power of endings by developing activities that help learners reinforce what they have learned, tie things together, and project into the future.

For instance, in the listening workshop, learning could be reinforced by using another partner interaction, this time a partner “teach and reverse.” I have participants select one new strategy that they would like to try after leaving this workshop. Explain that strategy to a partner and tell how you plan to use it. Respond to questions. Then they will explain a strategy they want to try to you. Take two minutes each. We'll hear a few examples of your plans as we close.

Learners review the material to prepare for the interaction, and then give voice to their understanding and check it with someone else, thus reinforcing the learning.

For me, designing training programs is a matter of balancing new information with interaction. I set the strong learning environment, activate prior learning, use a variety of approaches, engage learners in dialogue, and reinforce their learning. Try these keys yourself. You'll be amazed at the energy they produce and the level of learning that occurs — far beyond the 10 percent that they would remember if they only heard the new information. Remember, adults love to learn, and they are so well equipped for it that it takes effort to not learn. Try the keys and tap into that learning power!

Adult educator and trainer Joye Norris, North Myrtle Beach, S.C., is a designer of curriculum that stands on the foundation of human growth and development.

Tips for Presenters

  • If you want people to learn and retain the information, ask them at the beginning of the program what they want to get out of the meeting. At the end of the meeting, ask them if they got out of it what they had hoped they would.
  • Set lecterns and screens at angles from each other so the presenter can see audiovisuals without turning away from the audience. Many novice presenters look at the screen and talk (to make sure the correct slide is up), rather than speak to the audience.