How Does Stickiness Translate into Effective, Impactful Learning?

While the classic definition of sticky is “adhesive, viscous and gluey,” it means a lot more in today’s world—especially in the context of software products.

According to author Malcolm Gladwell, “stickiness” is the quality that compels people to pay close, continuous attention to a product, concept or idea. Stickiness is also another term of “high switching costs,” a characteristic that makes it difficult for a product’s users to switch away to a competing product.

“If you pay careful attention to the structure and format of your material, you can dramatically enhance stickiness,” writes Gladwell in his bestsellerThe Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

In the book, Gladwell describes how all types of fads exist around us, but only a few stay for a long time, which he attributes to what he calls the Stickiness Factor.

He uses Sesame Street as a prime example of a television program that was failing miserably with test groups—until someone thought of blending real people with puppets. Ultimately, the show’s young audiences “came for the stickiness and stayed for the education.”

The key is presenting information in a way that will impact others, stay with them past the initial learning experience and influence behavior. “Sesame Street succeeded because it learned how to make television sticky,” writes Gladwell.

So how can instructors do the same when teaching virtual instructor-led training (VILT)—and deliver sticky training content?

The answer lies in developing meaningful knowledge that can be applied in various contexts. After all, the ultimate goal is to help students understand the content and present it in a way that will have a lasting impact. To achieve this, instructors should try the following techniques:

Develop meaningful content

It is common for students to attend training courses with an assortment of previous ideas and experiences. In order to develop meaningful connections necessary for long-term knowledge retention, these ideas and experiences must be connected to the content. However, as an instructor, it isn’t always possible to know what your students’ previous ideas and experiences are—but it is easier to understand how your curriculum can affect their futures.

Consequently, always consider how your course is relevant to your student’s professional lives and to their future careers. How will it help them do their jobs better? How will it make them be more productive at work? How does your course help them help their boss?

Chunk the content

To avoid delivering too much information—which can lead to weak knowledge retention—try breaking the information into smaller parts.

In The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, neuroscientist Daniel Bor explains that chunking not only reduces the cognitive load, but also provides meaning and context to the information, making it easier to recall.

Make use of active learning

According to research, active learning leads to improvements in students’ thinking and writing, as well as better student engagement and attitudes. As a result, it is important to incorporate active learning into all training. Examples include interactive activities, scenarios and simulations.

Psychology professors Diane Halpern and Milton Hakel maintain that learning depends less on what instructors do than what they ask their students to do. So what can instructors ask students to do in order to encourage active learning?

Instead of solely obtaining information from textbooks or lectures, students should develop their own ideas. To inspire these ideas, ask students to make connections, develop questions, and create solutions.


Additionally, to promote long-term retention, instructors should provide opportunities for repeated and spaced retrieval of information. “Actual practice at retrieval helps later recall of any learned information more than additional practice without retrieval—or time expended in learning the information in the first place,” write Halpern and Hakel.

Apply the content to student’s daily lives

Because it is common for individuals to learn more by actually doing, immediately using the learned material enhances knowledge retention. For example, virtual training labs can be used to replicate realistic situations.

When these labs are part of the learning process, they successfully teach students the skills they need when they are back behind their desks.

Administer tests and quizzes

One of the simplest knowledge retention techniques is to incorporate tests and quizzes into the learning process. These help learners keep track of their own progress and allow them see what they have learned and retained. Quizzes and tests also provide instructors with data about how effective the learning module is and how students are doing in the course.

There is no question that stickiness can be difficult to define. It’s all about creating something that individuals can’t seem to get enough of. Think iPhones and Starbucks meet training content. The ultimate goal is developing meaningful content and delivering it in a way that has a lasting impact on students.

In the words of Malcolm Gladwell: “There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.”

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