Length: 848 words. Reading Time: ~4.5 minutes

The term “brain science” gets a lot of play these days. We’ve moved into an age where information is ubiquitous and learning is a survival skill. Understanding how we learn and applying that knowledge has maybe never been more important. Yet, here we are, still trapping adult learners in training rooms and trying to force feed them months of information in day-long training sessions with no follow-up. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy they “one-dayer” (as a learner and as a facilitator) unfortunately, it simply isn’t an effective model for long-term knowledge retention. We need something more.

With the recent advancements in brain science, you might hope we’d have some new answers about how to retain information over the long-term. While there’s certainly some great new information, it’s underutilized old information that needs to be applied more rigorously. In 1885 (that’s not a typo), researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus hypothesized what we now know as the “Forgetting Curve.”

Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve informed us of two things you already know:

  1. As time progresses, we forget what we’ve learned.
  2. If we repeat that information – we’ll remember it better.

Which brings us to spaced-repetition…

Definition: Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material to exploit the psychological spacing effect, where learning is greater when spread out over time.

Why does this matter to learning professionals?

Aside from the obvious (more repetitions are better), it raises questions about how to make learning stick. Our brains need to forget unimportant information to prevent us from going insane. That means, our brains are specially designed not to remember some information. If a saber tooth tiger eats our brother, we’re likely to remember that (it’s important). Conversely, we’re unlikely to remember how many ribs we ate after we killed said tiger (it’s not important… unless you’re on a diet).

Now, consider your current world. How much information, pushed and pulled, are you faced with every day? Because most of that information is utterly useless to you, the ability to forget much of it is critical to your survival. The trouble we face in this world is that the non-critical information looks a whole lot like the critical information – our brain can’t easily discern what is critical and what isn’t.

What’s better than spaced-repetition?

Spaced-repetition becomes even more powerful when it is turned into space-retrieval. In the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful learning, the authors describe the importance of retrieval as a learning mechanism. The act of retrieving information serves to reinforce the information more deeply than if you we were simply shown the information again. Their research shows that even if we are unable to recall the information, the attempt to recall the information will help reinforce the learning when we see the correct response.

How should learning professionals use spaced-retrieval?

Get Support. The starting point for spaced-retrieval is to see learning as a process, rather than an event. As a learning professional, you probably already think this way… your customer(s) may not. Gaining buy-in for the use of spaced-retrieval could be tricky depending on your organizations appetite for change. My recommendation is to not make recommendations (see what I did there?). Instead, present the data behind why spaced-retrieval (this will validate a lot of feelings that the current method of training doesn’t offer enough value) and then ask your customer how they believe it might be applied. We know that people are far more likely to support their own ideas than someone else’s and you can always change things around as they go if needed.

Build Your System. Next, you need a system, which you can draw from one of the oldest study tools: flash cards. They may not be sexy, but they sure are effective. Millions of university students owe their degrees to these 3 x 5 pieces of card.

In the 1970s, German science journalist, Sebastien Leitner created the Leitner Flash Card System. The system is an “ancient” example of adaptive learning, where as you master content, you increase the time between now and when you’ll recall it again. This system allows you to “forget” the content a little, making the retrieval harder and reinforcing the learning more deeply.

The system works using a series of 5 boxes. All flashcards start in box one and are progressed to the next box when you get them correct. The magic in this process comes from the spaced-retrieval. If you get a card right in the first box, you don’t review it again until the next day. If you get it right again, you don’t review it for another three days, then 7 days, then 15 days. If you get a card wrong, it goes back to the first box. This method has proven to be incredibly powerful for creating long-term knowledge retention and should be adopted in some form for the crucial content in your corporate training content.

Digitally or physically, the Leitner Flash Card System is an excellent model to start build a spaced-repetition plan in your business.

Clint Clarkson

Clint Clarkson

VP, eLearning at Xpan Interactive
Clint Clarkson is the VP of eLearning at Xpan Interactive, a digital-services firm that specializes in the delivery of custom eLearning solutions. He has 15+ years of evolution in Learning & Development as a facilitator, instructional designer, and leader. Connect with Clint on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.
Clint Clarkson

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