Several months ago, I argued that “If your training goal is long-term retention and transfer, then what you do after training is more important than what you do during training.” I then showed evidence that if you systematically deliver quizzes, polls, and discussions in the days and weeks after training you can reshape the forgetting curve and dramatically enhance retention. Indeed, this principle holds true whether you are presenting live, instructor-led training, or asynchronous online training.

What is pre-training?

This month, I want to introduce a related, and perhaps more controversial notion: If your goal is long term retention and transfer, what you do before training is also more important than what you do during training.

To illustrate this notion, let’s first review some of the various activities that can take place prior to the first day of training. (Figure 1) Again, this principle holds true whether you are presenting live, instructor-led training or asynchronous online training.

Figure 1: Pre-training can include several different activities that focus training to save money, provide a common foundation of knowledge, and prime learners in a way that increases learning

360 assessment

A 360 assessment involves collecting opinions about a worker’s performance from a range of individuals including supervisors, peers, and even customers. People often use 360 assessments for evaluating workers’ performance, but they are equally valuable in determining training needs.

Gap identification

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and based on the 360-assessment tool, you should be able to identify areas where a worker is lacking particular knowledge, skills, and abilities that are essential to performing his or her job.

Personal interest inventory

A thorough pre-training program should also consider the interests and inclinations of the learner. If we understand a worker’s personal goals it is possible to tailor a training program that will intrinsically motivate them.

Personal learning path

Using the 360 assessment, gap identification, and personal-interest survey, it is now possible to establish a personal learning path for each individual worker. Take inventory of your training assets and create paths that include remedial courses and specific trainings that benefit both the individual and the organization.

Remedial preparation

Remedial preparation is critical and consists of pre-work that insures that everyone has the requisite knowledge to begin the training session. This pre-work can consist of an online course, required readings, or even just a conversation with a manager.

The benefits of pre-training

Research has found three benefits to pre-training.

Benefit 1: Focused training

Whether you are delivering instructor-led training or online training, a systematic program of pre-training will benefit your organization in a variety of ways. The first benefit is that it saves the organization money. Many companies provide blanket training without regard to whether the worker actually needs it. Indeed, some research shows that managers believe that 50% of the training they receive is either redundant to what they already know or irrelevant to what they do. A simple 360  and skill-gap assessment can ensure that training is delivered when, but only when, it is really needed.

A related benefit is that your employee will develop a more positive attitude toward their training requirements. When employees see that the organization has provided them with a personal learning path, they develop a greater trust for the program and become more engaged learners.

Benefit 2: A common foundation of knowledge

Pre-training makes it likely that your learners will have the prerequisite knowledge when they first walk in the door. This foundation makes it easier on the instructor who can teach to a more intellectually homogeneous audience. It also makes it easier on the learner to learn the content of the core training. Knowledge is associative, and it is easier to learn new information when we can link it to things we already know. Pre-training provides learners with the foundation that they need to be successful.

Benefit 3: Priming increases retention

A third benefit of pre-training is that you can “prime” the learner and make it more likely that they will retain information. Priming refers to a general memory phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus. Here is a classic way to experience the power of priming. Ask a friend to repeat the word “silk” 10 times as fast as she can. Then ask her, “What does a cow drink?” More often than not, your friend will reply “milk,” and you will have demonstrated priming. Your friend was primed to say milk (instead of water) because (1) silk rhymes with milk, and (2) because “cow” shares a semantic association with the word milk. For another experience of priming, check out this online demonstration.

Within the context of training, priming refers to events that make people more likely to learn and retain essential information. For example, in the days prior to training, you can prime your students with a series of foreshadowing questions that will get them thinking about your topic. For instance, if you are delivering a training on “consensus leadership,” you can ask provoking survey or short-answer questions about consensus leadership and get them thinking about your topic. In turn, when you discuss this topic during the training, your priming will make it more likely they will retain what you have to say. This type of priming is the foundation of the now-famous SQ3R technique that helps students become more active readers.

Please share your best ideas

If we want our employees to learn, retain, and transfer their learning, it is not sufficient simply to provide training exercises. Instead, we need to deliver a comprehensive program that includes both pre-training and after-training experiences.

What experience have you had with pre-training activities? What have you tried? What were the obstacles and what were the benefits? Let us know in the comments section.

Digging deeper

  • If you would like to have your memory of this article reinforced, send an email to You will automatically receive a series of boosters on this article. The boosters take only seconds to complete, and they will profoundly increase your ability to recall the content of these articles.
  • The priming phenomena is a fundamental notion which affects many aspects of everyday human behavior. This video does a nice job of showing how thoughts of money affect the way we interact with one another.
  • The original work on priming was done in the 1970s by Meyer and Schvaneveldt. Their originalpaper makes for fun reading. (Editor’s note: purchase required for full text; however, the abstract provided gives a useful summary.)