Many professions use science to improve the outcomes of their work. For example, architects use the principles of physics and math to design buildings that will function safely and last decades or even centuries. Architecture is often equated with art, but it’s the science behind it that truly makes it work.
In much the same way, we as learning and HR professionals need to understand the science of learning to improve the outcomes of our efforts in training employees. Without examining the science and the research into the most effective ways people learn, we are doomed to make mistakes that will impede our progress.
So what does science tell us we should do to improve the way employees learn? Here are four things you can start doing today:
#1: Chunk It
In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.
Cognitive load theory states that we have mental “bandwidth” restrictions. In other words, our brain can only process a certain amount of information at a time.
One of the things that can cause overload is too much information. So the #1 thing we need to do with our training content is to chunk it down into bite-sized “bursts” to lower the cognitive load.
Microlearning is very popular today and a key component of our online training solution. We offer training videos that are typically 5-10 minutes in length to address the needs of today’s workplace and the realities of learning science.
#2: Test Learners
Many of us view tests or quizzes as similar to a car dipstick, simply measuring the amount of knowledge that is retained by learners. It turns out that is wrong.
In addition to measuring learning, testing actually increases learning more than any other study method. Scientists call this idea “The Testing Effect” or retrieval practice, and numerous studies have shown that long-term memory is increased when some of the learning time is devoted to retrieving the to-be-remembered information.
As you can see, incorporating tests and quizzes into employee training programs is more than just measuring the amount of learning that has taken place… it’s a critical part of the learning itself. So resist the temptation to skip testing!
#3: Space It Out
Cramming is something many of us are familiar with from our high school and college experiences. And it can be an effective learning methodology if your only objective is to pass a one-time exam.
Unfortunately, employee training doesn’t work like that. The knowledge and skills we are learning need to be retained over a long period of time. Fortunately, there is a solution… spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition uses the “spacing effect” which essentially says that by spacing out the information over time rather than cramming it into one session or a short time period, you will improve your long-term memory.
The image below illustrates this concept. This has very important implications for us as learning professionals. We need to space out our programs so employees will get the most from their training time.
#4: Mix It Up
Traditional employee training has focused on mastering one skill at a time… building on each newly acquired skill one at a time.
In the learning science world, this is called “blocking” and it is common practice due to the ease of scheduling and perceived value of mastering one thing at a time.
However, another strategy promises improved results. Enter “interleaving,” a largely unheard-of technique that is capturing the attention of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists.
Over the past four decades, a growing body of research has found that mixing or “interleaving” often outperforms blocking in terms of learning effectiveness.
Whereas blocking involves practicing one skill at a time before the next (for example, “skill A” before “skill B” and so on, forming the pattern “AAABBBCCC”), in interleaving one mixes practice on several related skills together (forming for example the pattern “ABCABCABC”).
For instance, a pianist alternates practice between scales, chords, and arpeggios, while a tennis player alternates practice between forehands, backhands, and volleys.
To increase learning, the science suggests that we mix up lessons on related topics, challenging our learners to “practice like we play the game” – after all, in the real world we must handle a variety of situations and recall a variety of knowledge every working day.
Note: As a disclaimer, I must admit that I’m most definitely not a neuroscientist or cognitive psychologist so my knowledge in this area is based on my own research and discussions with these types of experts, in addition to more than 25 years of experience in designing and delivering employee training solutions.
As I continue my research and discovery process I will post more articles to share my new knowledge!