Encoding: Something to Remember About Learning

These days, it seems like everyone is busier, handling more disparate tasks, and learning how to do things on the fly. It can feel a little uncomfortable. The best learning prepares our people to do their best at work—on the job, interacting with others, and making good decisions in the face of ambiguity—and fosters curiosity, a hallmark of a lifelong learner.

We know we need to take time to train and upskill, yet there seems to never be enough time for training. As we strive to carve out the necessary time for learning, it’s critical that the learning we assign and consume is effective. Information needs to be well-structured and memorable to be effective, which is why leveraging the science of learning to encourage recall is critical for any workplace training program.

When it comes to learning, Litmos leverages our own solutions internally, which helps us better understand our customer needs. We hear how busy our colleagues are—how they are juggling deadlines for work products and their training assignments. They worry about getting it all in, and we do, too. We want them to feel prepared and successful. Effective learning design considers these realities and offers opportunities for learners to apply and retain new information.

What is encoding?

The process of taking information into our brain where it can be organized and stored is called encoding. The better we encode, the better we organize for recall when we need information later. This is known as retrieval. The more precise and meaningful the message, the better it’s received, or encoded. Taking encoding into consideration can help us build each learning element in an eLearning program.

Why is encoding important?

We can hold only so much information in our working memory. Neuroscientists once thought that we could hold around 7 pieces of information, but some are now saying our cognitive capacity may be just a few items at once. When we’re learning on the job, we don’t want anything to drag our capacity down or expend precious capacity calling up information—the formula for variance or the name of that abstract expressionist who made those paintings we saw last summer.

How to strengthen recall in workplace learning

Knowledge stored in your long-term memory is “at the ready” to be retrieved when needed. The stronger workplace learning embeds at the time of encoding, the more readily it can be recalled. One of the best ways to strengthen recall is to learn in a situative, social, sensory environment that closely mimics the workplace contexts where learners need to apply that new knowledge:

Learning is a constructive and situative process. When an episode connects prior knowledge to new knowledge through characters and settings that are familiar, learners pick up on authenticity and learn contextually.

Learning is social. Relatable learning scenarios stick. Learners can imagine themselves doing something which helps them remember.

Learning is a sensory experience. Physical and auditory memories can be tied to the learning episode. Where were you when you learned that? Sitting at your desk, the kitchen table? On a train? What did you hear? Live, or live online learners often recall facts in the instructor’s voice when they first hear it. eLearners may recall the tone of the narrator on their video. Where and how you learned helps encoding adhere, or transfer to long-term memory.

Real-world scenarios aren’t just for the conveying of information. Skillful assessments use scenario-based, multiple-choice questions that help demonstrate learners’ application and decision-making skills, which are vital for solid job performance, in any setting. And, because they are situative and social, they aid encoding. But there’s another reason why real-world scenarios are an effective learning tool: feedback.

Things that interfere with encoding:

  • Cognitive overload – eLearning has many capabilities, and it’s important to be intentional about what is added to training. Consider not going overboard with completing text, imagery, video, and design elements. When multimedia does not match, the learner cannot properly process information (flashing objects, loud music alongside narration, even narration that is even slightly “off” from the text on the screen).
  • Distraction – not having a place to learn that is conducive to study (noise, other people, even poor internet connections) can reduce the learner’s ability to encode.
  • Unclear information – Creating content is a multi-step process that involves drafting, review, revision, and quality checks. In the digital age, some of these steps can be skipped or done by the same individual, which allows for errors or confusion (poorly edited material, rambling sentences, sentence, even bad punctuation). These errors can interfere with the clarity of the information being shared.

How instant feedback impacts encoding

Receiving instant feedback on errors—correcting mistakes in the moment, prevents errors from encoding into our long-term memory. Often, when learners pass an assessment, they don’t take the time to understand what they got wrong and how to correct ourselves for next time. After all, they’re busy people, right? Well, the truth is, humans are more efficient at learning when they take the time to understand incorrect answers. Connecting and replacing the initial wrong information with the right material through instant feedback reduces the retrieval strength of the error and increases the retrieval strength of the correct information. This is a fast and effective way to gain and retain information.

Building opportunities for situative, social, and sensory learning – as well as instant feedback – into your workplace training programs can help your learners retain and recall important information more effectively. In short, strong encoding helps learners remember better.