How to use science to make learning stick

Posted on Aug 31, 2017

Learning strategies

Platforms

If you’ve been to the gym lately, you’ll know just how popular interval training has become. Everyone seems to be getting into the fitness technique that involves short bursts of high-intensity activity.  There is growing evidence that interval training is more effective than longer workouts. Researchers at McMaster University in Canada found that three 20-minute sessions of interval training a week provided the same benefits as 10 hours of steady exercise over a two-week period.

Just as shorter bursts of activity over regular intervals are better for our bodies, they are also good for our brains.        

Learning reinforcement is extremely effective in helping people build and remember knowledge. The issue for organisations has been how to introduce it in a way that is time/cost effective and can be shown to achieve measurable business results. Now, advances in what intelligent learning management platforms and content can deliver, along with instant accessibility via multiple devices, means learning reinforcement is a real option for corporate learning.  

Science-backed learning

Learning reinforcement is a scientific technique for maximising knowledge retention.  It’s based on research into the way we retrieval information.  The best part is that it works with our brains – not against them.

Here are the two key principles at work:

  • Retrieval
  • Spacing

Retrieval is the process of recalling knowledge from memory.  Research studies, such as one published by Jeffrey D. Karpicke, established that practicing retrieval enhances long-term, meaningful learning. Repeatedly retrieving information helps our brains identify it as being worth remembering. Even better, because our brain has to process information as part of retrieval, rather than replicating an exact copy, each time we retrieve, it we enhance our understanding.

The frequency and the intervals between retrieval of information also matter for our brains. Just like our physical bodies, shorter bursts over intervals count.  Scientific research has identified that our retention of information improves when the time between testing (or retrieval) is spaced out. This ‘Spacing Effect’ has been studied by learning expert, Will Thalheimer who found that interval reinforcement on the job after training improves people’s ability to apply what they learn, and the closer learning reinforcement takes place to the point at which it is needed, the more it will be remembered and used.

Where it works well

Learning reinforcement is most appropriate for use in scenarios where there are goal or task-orientated learning environments, situations where there is a clear definition on standards. So health and safety, risk reduction, sales enablement scenarios, all fit well. Organisations that have a ‘modern worker’ demographic – fast-paced organisations, requiring knowledge quickly, on demand, on mobile – are also suited. But it’s not restricted to just those types of environments. It also works well within other areas too, such as call centres, customer services and retail.

And, whilst many companies do have a formal learning management system, with heavy content and classroom-based learning as their foundation for training, interval reinforcement learning can be used to either complement existing training strategies, or as a stand-alone solution.

It’s going to be big…

This is only the start for learning reinforcement. Looking ahead, this is the way learning is going. The newest technology is so intelligent that it allows the content to be updated in the space of an afternoon to reflect the learner’s progress or in response to changes in an organisation’s learning needs.

It’s only very recently that learners and organisations have been ready for this type of learning; for many it might still be too soon. But this will change. A lot of organisations are already talking about it. Bite-sized it might be, but we’re going to be consuming more of it in the future. Expect learning reinforcement to take off. 

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This is a version of an article by Sponge’s Louise Pasterfield, originally published in e.learning age magazine. 

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