By Chapin Brinegar

Senior Manager of Instructional Design

In my experience, lack of reinforcement is one of the most common—and most detrimental—mistakes clients make when implementing trainings. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen a client spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a learning and development initiative, but not take the time to implement follow-up activities and truly evaluate whether the learning “stuck.”

Unfortunately, this pattern happens all too often—the training rolls out, everyone moves on to the next initiative, and little to no effort is put into reinforcement. The immediate and long-lasting repercussions of this shortsighted approach include:

  • A failure to retain key concepts
  • An erosion of learned skills
  • Little to no transfer of new knowledge from short-term to long-term memory

Ultimately, these repercussions lead to a low return on investment (ROI) and hurt a company’s bottom line. So the question becomes not whether to reinforce learning, but how best to do so. Though some reinforcement is better than none, there are many ways traditional reinforcement fails to best meet learners’ needs. Following the consensus of most training experts, I highly recommend clients incorporate spaced learning strategies to reinforce all their training initiatives. In this post, I’ll examine what spaced learning is and how you can incorporate it into your trainings to ensure the highest ROI possible.

What is spaced learning?

The spaced learning approach provides your learners many opportunities to practice or retrieve a certain piece of content. The key is to allow a period of time to pass before presenting the same concept again. The complexity of the content as well as how urgently the learner must achieve a specific learning objective will dictate the number of repetitions and the spacing between them.

It’s important to note the spaced learning approach is not static. Rather, it adapts to the information being learned. While you may repeat some concepts exactly as they were presented earlier, you may present others slightly differently.1

For example, verbal knowledge questions such as “What is the dosing for this product?” might be written the same way each time to emphasize the correct answer time and time again. On the other hand, selling skills or objection handling questions—which require more abstract and creative thinking—might be presented using varied scenarios during each reinforcement session to give the learner an opportunity to work through a range of situations.

How does spaced learning differ from traditional reinforcement?

With a traditional reinforcement approach, learners typically go through some type of summative assessment or a one-time follow-up exercise that is meant to pull through the initial content. Spaced learning, in contrast, involves repetition with more opportunities for practice as well as shorter gaps between learning sessions.

The difference between the two may best be seen in an example. Imagine a group of specialty sales reps are expected to sell a complex new pharmaceutical product starting next month. A traditional reinforcement approach might be to provide initial training and follow up a week or two later with a review. Spaced learning, on the other hand, would involve a series of reinforcement events, with one taking place every couple of days to ensure retention. In this way, learning happens in short bursts spaced over time, and there are several windows for application and assessment.

How do we know the spaced learning approach works?

Researchers studying the science behind learning and memory have found retrieval is critical for durable, long-term learning. This is because each time something is retrieved from memory, it becomes more accessible in the future.2 The spaced learning approach capitalizes on this fact, stressing repeated retrieval to enable learning that lasts.

The spaced learning approach is based on the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which documents the relationship and impact of time and repetition on an individual’s ability to remember information. The curve demonstrates that learners’ ability to recall and retrieve information significantly drops off over time. In fact, it shows that most learners will forget up to 50% of new information only one hour following a training event.3 By allowing learners to revisit, retrieve, and reuse information, spaced learning shortens the learning curve and also reshapes it as the learner moves the information to their long-term memory.3

How can you implement spaced learning?

If you’re new to spaced learning, consider using it in one of the three ways listed below. If you’ve used spaced learning in the past, review this list to check whether you’re using it in all the ways you could be.

1. To reinforce old skills:
I personally have found that it is beneficial to present the same concepts in different ways and through a variety of scenarios. This gives learners a chance to think about the content in new ways and depart from the traditional forms of application.

2. To teach new skills
Spaced learning works especially well when the learner needs to apply new skills, such as in sales. It’s effective to vary the types of scenarios so that the learner is better prepared for the real world and can respond to different types of questions.

3. To help learners understand complex concepts
I’ve also found that with more complex concepts, you should begin with shorter spaces between reinforcements and then gradually extend the time between them, once the learners are more confident with the content. This works especially well for technical content or dense medical concepts, where retention doesn’t happen overnight. Learners need frequent exposure to the terminology and content for it to stick.

The great thing about spaced learning is that it can be used in any domain, with any content, for any group for learners.1 In addition, both presentations of content as well as application-based opportunities can be spaced. Consider also employing mobile learning technologies, which have made “on-the-go” learning easier to implement than ever. They are great vehicles that are often underused for spaced learning events.2

However you decide to implement spaced learning, you can be confident your learners will benefit—and so will your ROI.

References

  1. Casebourne I. Spaced learning: an approach to minimize the forgetting curve. Association for Talent Development website. https://www.td.org/insights/spaced-learning-an-approach-to-minimize-the-forgetting-curve. Published January 27, 2015. Accessed June 20, 2018.
  2. Karpicke J. A powerful way to improve learning and memory: practicing retrieval enhances long-term, meaningful learning. American Psychological Association website. http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory.aspx. Published June 2016. Accessed June 20, 2018.
  3. Hogle P. Forgetting helps you remember: why spaced learning works. Learning Solutions website. https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/2168/forgetting-helps-you-remember-why-spaced-learning-works. Published December 20, 2016. Accessed June 20, 2018.

Chapin Brinegar holds a Master of Science in instructional technology and has more than 10 years of experience in education, corporate training, and instructional design. She has a proven track record working with a variety of clients in the pharmaceutical and life sciences marketplace. As an instructional design professional for Encompass, Chapin works closely with her clients to uncover their specific needs and to design, develop, and deploy a range of learning solutions.

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