After Training: The Zeigarnik Effect

I often use follow-up activities after the training I conduct.   Most often I find I have to force myself to get this done.  I’m ready to move on to the next project, to design the next training, to write the next newsletter.  Many trainers tell me the same thing.  They are ready to move on rather than follow up with previous training.

I recently conducted training on storytelling for trainers.  At the end of the training, I assigned “homework” to develop a short story or illustration and then schedule an individual phone call with me to review/practice the story and to receive my feedback.  I waited for the calls so I could listen to each person’s story.  And waited…and waited.  Nobody got in touch with me to set up the phone call until I sent a reminder, and in many cases, more than one reminder.

Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik developed a theory which became known as the Zeigarnik Effect that explains my experience. I suspect I’m not the only trainer who has experienced lack of participation in follow-up activities.  Briefly, the Ziegarnik Effect is based on the fact that when people get closure on a topic, it’s not likely to be top of mind any more.  Likewise, people are more likely to remember what they have not gotten closure on.   So when, in the learning event, the learning points are summarized and other closing activities are present, the ZeigarnikEffect indicates that these closing/closure activities actually make it harder for participants to remember and use what they have learned once they get back on the job.  The Zeigarnik Effect also explains why most trainers are not motivated to follow up after a learning event.

What to do?  Here are a few suggestions for incorporating the Zeigarnik Effect:

  1. Provide shortened, not detailed explanations for some of the learning.  Post the complete explanation on a static source, such as a webpage, which participants can refer to during the class and later.

  2. If an action plan or after-training checklist is to be developed, ask trainees to provide 1-2 items for it and stop them before they can do more.

  3. Use a stopwatch or clock timer on your phone to help force you to stop before participants are finished.

  4. When providing learning points or a list in the training, provide only the first few and let participants know where and when the rest will be provided. This is a good use for Facebook-types of social media, or, emails will work too. Most LMS systems can be set up to send after-training prompts and reminders automatically.

These suggestions are the opposite of many best practices for designing and conducting learning events.  But maybe if we try to do more of the above, we might find that trainees will more readily remember and use what they have learned.  And maybe trainers (myself included) will be more motivated to follow up with trainees afterwards.

While I have known about the Zeigarnik Effect for some time and have used the above suggestions from time to time, I must admit that it is not easy to break lifelong habits.  I’m going to try to do more of this.  Maybe you will too.

Until next time…..

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