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
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
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
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
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
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
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
• Pre-work to establish basic facts
and engage learners.
• An immersive training event to
expand on the pre-work and
provide meaningful practice
• 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