Making learning stick – how to sustain learning after a development programme

Putting on velcro shoes

A common challenge for many Learning and Development professionals is ensuring that what people learn on a development programme sticks with them, even long after it has finished.

It feels like this is an issue that L&D has wrestled with since the very beginning. The difficulty is, for real change to occur, learning needs to become more than just knowledge retention. Real change happens when we can change people’s behaviour rather than simply memorise information.

And that isn’t easy, any change in behaviour must be consistently and repeatedly executed again and again for any real learning to stick long-term.

The psychology of learning and behaviour change

It sounds obvious, but any behaviour change in your business needs to start by clearly establishing what behaviour you want to change. Often this isn’t thoroughly thought through, so a great starting point is to ask yourself the question ‘can you visualise and paint a picture of the behaviour that you actually want to sustain?’

That will then help you set behavioural objectives which will enable you to look back and evaluate the journey of behaviour change from start to finish.

5 reasons learning isn’t sticking with your people

1. Not having enough time:
A very common response from people when learning hasn’t stuck in their organisation is the lack of time to actually apply learning from a programme in their day-to-day life. Although this is a huge barrier for many people, we all have 100% of time, and that amount of time is the same every single day. Time is more about how you prioritise opposed to physically not having it or lacking it. When you leave the room, workshop or virtual delivery, your people need prioritise their time to ensure they will practise the learnings from that session. They need to leave with a committed learning mindset.

How to address the challenge: help people develop a committed learning mindset


  • Engage learners at the very start of their learning journey starting with a structured communications plan around the programme. Persuasive, targeted communications can be used to guide participants towards committing to action. Think about using nudge psychology within communication to really enhance commitment.
  • Use measure- up and check-in questions. These questions are a powerful tool for noticing the gap between what delegates really wants to do, and what they can actually do at the moment. Being able to notice this gap is often a motivator for change. One of the most effective ways to get someone committed to making a change is to make them aware of something they weren’t previously aware of, and the earlier that happens in their journey, the better.


2. Lack of manager support:
The level of support a learner has from their manager has a direct impact on the effectiveness of the programme. Support is needed from managers for a learner to make the most of a development opportunity, especially when they come back into the workplace after a programme has finished. Managers that are supporting their people, giving them breathing space, and time to reflect about their own development, are more likely to encourage a real sustainable shift in their people’s behaviour.

How to address the challenge: engage managers in the programme


  • A great way to engage managers in training programmes and get them on-board is to involve them in the creation of the programme. This could include inviting them along to focus groups and discovery sessions. This helps managers to connect with the programme themselves and creates their own personal interest in supporting their direct reports through it. 

3. Unhealthy habits:
A habit is an easy, tried and tested pattern of behaviour that tends to happen subconsciously when we’re not even aware of doing it. For example, waking up and checking your phone straight away in the morning is a habitual behaviour that occurs daily. Habits can be helpful and healthy in particular contexts, but some are unhelpful and hinder performance. In an organisational context, if habits have developed among employees when it comes to day-to-day tasks and operations, these individuals will find it harder to break old habits and implement techniques learnt from a development programme. A new behaviour could be kept up for a few days, but without repetition and active participation, eventually they’ll slip back into their old pattern of behaviour. 

How to address the challenge: bring habits to the forefront of consciousness


  • The first step in breaking a habit is to bring that habit to the forefront of the consciousness and increase awareness of it. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is by using feedback. Encourage learners to get people around them to call them out on unhealthy behaviours if they start slipping back into old ways. A fantastic way of breaking habits through a learning journey is using a ‘mobile coach’ tool. This is a way to access and send messages to the mobile phones of every participant on a programme. The text messages can be sent at regular intervals with key learnings and takeaways. Every message can be personalised to that individual and remind them of how they were going to shift and change their behaviour. Every time a text message is received, the habit is brought back into the conscious mind. With effort, focus and discipline this tool can be highly effective.


4. Culture and norms:
Organisational culture is learnt from interactions with other people in the business and from modelling certain behaviour. For example, if your boss never gives you feedback you might assume that giving feedback is culturally off-limits in your organisation. So, no matter how many great workshops your people are sent to, there’s a danger that any learnt behaviour might never be put into practise if it’s at odds with the organisation’s culture.

How to address the challenge: having common behaviours and a common language


  • Where possible find ways to ensure that everyone in the organisation has the same set of skills and language to talk about those skills. For example, help everyone to have the same capability to deliver and receive feedback, have a common way of delivering feedback and make sure that, from the C-Suite to the newest employee, there’s a language of feedback that’s used across the board. With this tip, a consistent culture is created to support new behaviours.


5. A lack of social support and networks:
We know that through social learning and connecting with other people, we’re more likely to take on new behaviours and bring these behaviours back into the workplace. People need to be provided with the opportunities to make sense of what they’ve learnt and bringing different people together provides diverse and fresh perspectives which helps people reflect on their own behaviour and shift it if necessary.

How to address the challenge: create action learning groups


  • Social learning and networks can be created really simply through action learning groups. This is a small group of people, between 4-6, who come together in a fairly frequently to talk about the opportunities, challenges and experiences of learning on the programme and the practical application in their context. Action learning groups are also great at creating sustainable practises in organisations. Often, members of the learning group continue to meet beyond the programme itself. This technique leads to self-facilitated growth, as all participants understand the process and purpose, and continue beyond the learning intervention itself.


Have you ever tried to implement behaviour change in your organisation? Have you come up against any of these challenges? Let us know your experiences in the comments section below