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3 insights from Cognitive Science that will drive your employee knowledge

4 minutes read

Every day we come across instances when we need our team to remember information to do their jobs effectively. Sales representatives have to remember tons of features of the many products they sell. Bank tellers have to remember the different steps to successfully identify a suspicious large currency transaction. Any knowledge-intensive job requires people to retain crucial information and apply them in different situations.

But what can corporations do to help employees retain this disparate information?

Conventionally, organizations have arranged classroom training, e-learning sessions, webinars and exams to train executives. But all these methods focus on the knowledge input, but not on what knowledge is retained or actually used in practice.

As a business leader, it is not sufficient for you to know that your team has undergone a training. You want to make sure that they are actively retaining and using the knowledge learned.

That’s where today’s smart organizations are taking the cue from latest findings in the field of Cognitive Science.

Cognitive Science Research

Wikipedia says, “Cognitive Science is the study of thought, learning, and mental organization, which draws on aspects of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and computer modeling.”

Considerable amount of research has been conducted on different aspects of learning and how to beat the ‘forgetting curve’ - the inevitable information loss that starts soon after we have learnt something. Two important ways that are very promising from a corporate viewpoint are:

  • Test-Enhanced Learning - Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention: Researchers at Washington University1 were exploring how memory tests enhance learning retention. They came to the conclusion that “Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention, a phenomenon known as the testing effect.” This is very interesting as we mostly associate tests as an assessment tool, but now we know it can also aid in long-term recall. Which means your new product launch training can be supercharged by follow-up quiz as reinforcement.

  • Spacing Effects in Learning - Spacing refers to the practice of revisiting information after a period of time. If you have learned something a week before an exam and have revised that 2 days later, you have followed a spaced learning approach. A study was conducted by researchers at MIT and the University of California2 to understand how repeated exposure to the same information in the form of questions and answers, and the spacing effect, impacts retention. It was shown that providing the correct answer when an incorrect answer is chosen, is crucial, as it helps to increase retention.

It was found that Spacing in short sessions across days or weeks improves long-term retention. This learning can have an important business impact. For example, during a new product launch, companies often have a 1-2 day training session without any further reinforcement. This seems to be suboptimal. We can significantly improve retention by providing multiple exposures to information as well as providing regular quizzes to improve new product information retention.

Using Cognitive Science in the Corporate World

The above approaches can be very helpful to ensure employees in an organization are at the top of their knowledge curve. A very interesting article titled ‘Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice’3 identifies 3 general principles to help improve learning:

  1. Spacing (giving gaps) and interleaving (mixing different topics) is important while distributing learning facts. This is especially true for non-contextual information commonly encountered in the corporate setting (for example product specification, corporate policy etc.)

  2. Retrieval practice via testing increases retention. Thus providing follow-up quizzes after your product training can significantly boost retention.

  3. Questioning with explanations on correct answers help to retain information for a longer time

Information that executives need to remember so that they can apply it in their jobs is complex. It requires regular training and updates in a continuously changing environment. The principles of Cognitive Science can greatly help in increasing retention and combat the forgetting curve. In our experience, companies can do more to utilize these principles and drive better knowledge retention and employee productivity.

In a later article in this series, we will look how today’s technology can automate these processes and drive efficiency.


  1. Test-Enhanced Learning - Roediger and Karpicke, 2006
  2. Spacing Effects in Learning - Cepeda, Vul, Rohrer, Wixted and Pashler, 2008
  3. ‘Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice’- ‘Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition’, Roediger and Pyc, 2012

Published on Thu Dec 7 2017

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