Organizations are well-aware of the importance of continuous learning. As a result, they provide their employees with multiple options for finding new information, acquire new skills or brush up on existing ones.
Today learning really happens everywhere and anytime, provided the learner is in possession of a device that has the capacity to connect to wi-fi. Logistics is no longer an issue and neither is finding the proper expertise – because subject matter expert insight and mentorship is more available than ever.
There is, however, one aspect of learning that remains somewhat problematic – the ability of the learner to successfully apply the behavior, knowledge, and skills acquired in a learning event to the job, with a resulting improvement in job performance. That being roughly the definition of learning transfer.
What do instructional designers do now to improve learning transfer?
Since the issue is not a novel one, some progress has been made in the field of ensuring higher information retention rates. Some of the tactics already employed are:
- Before the learning event:
- Identifying the learning goals and including them in the pre-work
- Designing the learning material in a way that encourages learning transfer
- During the learning event:
- Making the content relevant and engaging for learners
- Offering the possibility of immediate feedback
- Adding gamification mechanics to make the content memorable
- After the learning event:
- Providing job aids and performance support
- Engaging peers and managers in coaching and feedback
- Allowing for a safe environment for the new skills to be practiced
Where is the greatest issue?
As you might guess, most of the information is lost immediately after the learning event. And that is mainly what is wrong – that learning is still seen as an isolated event instead as an ongoing journey.
In today’s highly competitive business world, organizations want employees back on the job after training – regardless if this has been a longer, instructor-led seminar or a bite-size e-learning module. What they don’t care for is extensive practice sessions, coaching interventions or ongoing evaluations. All these seem to be taking up valuable time.
Luckily, recent advances in brain science have shown that it doesn’t take long periods of time to ensure better information retention and real applicability in the workplace.
What solutions are there?
In his 2006 work, “Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says,” Will Thalheimer proved that although learning and memory are strong during a training event, knowledge is rapidly forgotten afterward.
He also pointed out that spacing reinforcement (also known as spaced repetition or interval reinforcement) on the job after the learning event had the capacity of enhancing people’s ability to remember and apply the information in their work.
Thalheimer stated that “the closer in time learning is delivered to the situations when it is needed, the less forgetting will be a factor. The less forgetting, the more learners will be able to remember what they learned and apply it to their jobs.”
It is up to instructional designers and learning specialists to create these situations so that the learned material really sticks and is transformed into positive outcomes for the organization.
What are the best ways to have spaced repetition in the workplace?
Interval reinforcement solutions are now readily available in the form of various apps or platforms. They make for excellent tools in providing this much needed spaced repetition both before a learning event and after it.
Most of it is done by making use of micro-learning (it is very important that being reminded of a certain piece of information does not take long) and of the strongly engaging potential of gamification elements. The point is to make repetition a pleasant, not tedious, experience.
Another excellent method is ‘active recall’ – testing to be more specific. Pop quizzes may not have been anyone’s particular favorites while in school but one has to admit that they did have an amazing power of bringing back answers that seemed buried in some dark corner of the brain.
All in all
The spacing effect is a perfect example of how much more effective learning becomes once we understand the intricate workings of the human brain. It’s up to corporate learning specialists to harness the potential of these neuroscientific findings and use spaced repetition to turn learning from isolated events to ongoing journeys.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.