Tips for retaining new skills

Remember what you’ve learned in courses, workshops, and training sessions.
Tips for retaining new skills

Today’s worker must pursue a path of lifelong learning to stay current in a career. With full-time jobs and personal commitments, however, professionals may worry whether they’re going to retain the new skills that they’re picking up through training, workshops, and courses.

“I think people get so busy the second they get back to their place of work, so the training and the inspiration to do things differently can soon be forgotten or put to the back of the priority list whilst people put out fires and deal with business as usual,” said Andi Lonnen, founder and CEO of Finance Training Academy Ltd. in Leeds in the UK.

It can be challenging to retain new skills, and even to implement something new, she said. Often, the skill or behaviour is replacing an entrenched skill or behaviour, so it needs constant work to become a new habit. If people are busy, it can be tempting to just stick with the old way, Lonnen said. With that, the training or knowledge can easily become a distant memory.

But there are ways to counter that. Lonnen and Bertram Opitz, professor in neuroimaging and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Surrey in the UK, offer advice for retaining new knowledge and skills:

Be in the moment. During training, leave your phone and other devices alone and be present for the training, Lonnen said. “How will you learn anything if you’re answering emails and focusing on those?” she said. “There are plenty of breaks to catch up on emails.”

Avoid other distractions as well, such as radio or television, Opitz added. “Any distraction causes interference between the to-be-learned information and irrelevant information,” he said.

Take the right steps to prepare your mind. Make sure your body and your mind are ready to learn and retain information, Opitz said. Sleep has a big impact on learning, he pointed out. “A sleep deficit would reduce your ability to pay attention and consequently will impair your ability to memorise new information,” Opitz said. “But sleep is also an active process that in itself is beneficial for learning.”

He said memory is consolidated, relevant information is extracted, and some generalisation takes place helping you to form long-lasting memories during the hours that you sleep. 

Develop a method to help you remember. Opitz said developing strategies to help retain and retrieve information from your mind can be helpful. One such strategy, for example, is the “method of loci”. A person would identify well-known landmarks on a highly familiar route, such as a daily run, or the order of animals they visit at the local zoo, Opitz said.

For example, if a person were to learn a new method that contained several steps in a process, the method of loci would be used by applying the steps in that process to a very familiar path in the person’s routine. If there were five steps in the method, and a daily run was selected, step one might be attached to the first traffic light in the run, and step two might be attached to a pedestrian crossing, Opitz said. The idea is to then go back, and mentally walk along that route to recall step one in conjunction with something well known, and so on, he said.

Another option is verbal elaboration, he said. Associate facts or knowledge with a rhyme or a similar word. For example, when we try to remember someone’s name, we might think, “Mrs. Green likes a bean,” Opitz said. Similar associations can be made for other facts you’ve learned.  

Implement immediately. Identify some “quick wins” from training — one or more activities that can be implemented immediately, Lonnen said. In the cases where information not used immediately may be lost, implementing the things you’ve learned right away builds confidence and momentum to implement further, she said.

Refresh regularly. When Lonnen teaches a course, she follows up after the fact with email refreshers for four weeks. If this isn’t an option from the course organiser, the person receiving the training can take it upon themselves to refresh their mind regularly after the fact. “This helps them remember the key points and start using the principles,” Lonnen said. 

Work with a friend. Find a colleague who attended the training with you, or has been through the same training, and hold each other accountable for putting the learning into practice, Lonnen said. This will ensure you continue to use the skills you’ve learned.

Test yourself, rather than restudy. Opitz said testing yourself on the information you’ve learned leads to better retention than restudying the information. “It has been shown that trying to retrieve the information you have learned once produces better memory than restudying the same material a couple of times,” he said.

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at