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focus_Training Reinforcement 101

Training Reinforcement 101

By Steven Boller

Take a moment to picture one of your target learners. Her name is Sarah. She’s a new pharmaceutical sales rep just getting started in her territory. Sarah has completed her onboarding and her schedule is already packed with physician visits.

Sarah also completed her assigned home study modules and has performed well in each of the training opportunities. For practical purposes, a manager would look at her records and assume that she knows her stuff. But as a trainer, you know that her initial onboarding was just the beginning. Is the prescribing information truly committed to memory, or is she struggling to look it up on her phone while sitting in the parking lot? Will she be ready to respond articulately when a physician fields a tough objection or asks for clinical trial data?

Pharmaceutical and medical devices sales are far too complex to support with one-time training events or “one and done” online modules. The cognitive load for these roles is high, and reps must constantly stay as up-to-date as the products they sell, industry regulations, the payer landscape and competitive shifts. To provide adequate support, trainers need strategies that help reps commit knowledge and skills to memory, as well as find and locate key information at the moment of need. To achieve the pull-through required to make training a worthwhile investment, training reinforcement is essential.

Design with the Brain in Mind

Have you heard of Herman Ebbinghaus’ famous Forgetting Curve? In case you are unfamiliar, Ebbinghaus’ 1880 and 1885 studies showed that we begin to forget what we learn almost instantly after learning it. The amount of time it takes us to “relearn” increases steadily, until we have forgotten as much as 90 percent of the original content.

Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve experiment has been successfully replicated several times. Most recently, Jaap M. J. Murre and Joeri Dros of the University of Amsterdam conducted a faithful replication of the Forgetting Curve and published their results in July 2015. While the original studies are nearly 140 years old, their conclusions have stood the test of time.

Ebbinghaus was also the first to identify the “spacing effect.” He observed that learning is greater when studying is spread out over time. Learners will remember best when they study in small increments with a few days between each session.

The research is clear: We are wired to forget what we learn without continuous relearning and repetition. Our personal experiences, both as learners and teachers, validate this as well. Unfortunately, the event-based training model is still the norm for most organizations. Reps show up for the national sales meeting or product launch event, receive new information they must internalize and incorporate into their repertoire, and head back to their territories. Without additional reinforcement and type of training is minimal.

Mobile Reinforcement for Memorization

The Forgetting Curve and the Spacing Effect show us that memorization happens best if studying is broken into small chunks over an extended period of time. The trend of microlearning is, in some ways, a response to this. After a major training event, the most critical learning objectives should be continuously reinforced through a series of short learning bursts that occur over a period of days, weeks, or months.

To achieve this, some organizations simply push out relevant questions for reps to answer each day on their device of choice. While an approach like this can be effective for some learners, it may become overly repetitive and predictable if repeated for too long. Gamifying the reinforcement process, or even packaging learning content into short mini-games, can help break the monotony.

Regardless of the tool or method used, mobile reinforcement should assess both reps’ performance and their self-reported confidence. Managers should be able to pull reports on player performance and use the results to identify coaching opportunities, as well as topics that might require further training.

Performance Support for Quick Reference

In many cases, organizations have hundreds (or even thousands) of sales aids and reference materials scattered across learning management systems, Sharepoint sites and other locations. Many of these resources are likely out of date, and most of them are probably not available to Sarah, our sales rep from the example above, when she is sitting in a physician’s parking lot trying to look something up.

Some of the information reps need to know may not be used frequently enough, or it may change too quickly, for them to commit it to memory. In these cases, a performance support tool is the ideal form of training reinforcement. Reps should be able to quickly search for and locate information on their device of choice.

Start with Analysis

Even when you know that some form of reinforcement is needed, determining what type of reinforcement to provide is not so simple. When this is the case, analysis is critical. Many trainers are already familiar with performing a training needs analysis, which usually includes job task analysis, focus groups, interviews and surveys. They are less familiar with uncovering the deeper, more fundamental needs of target learners. Do we understand Sarah’s feeling of frustration when she can’t find the information she needs on her phone before talking to a customer? How does that frustration help us define the real problem and identify the right type of training reinforcement to provide?

From Learning Events to Learning Campaigns

When we combine findings from the scientific literature on learning and remembering with findings from our own analysis and observations of what target learners want and need, training reinforcement is elevated from nice-to-have to essential. For this reason, major training initiatives should be broken into at least three phases:

• Pre-work to establish basic facts and engage learners.

• An immersive training event to expand on the pre-work and provide meaningful practice opportunities.

• A reinforcement phase that combines performance support with tools that support memorization and recall.

A fourth phase should be included as needed to disseminate new information over time and localize training materials for new markets.


Steven Boller is the director of marketing and product management at Bottom-Line Performance. Email Steve at

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