Learning Design Must Incorporate Spacing
When an eLearning course is delivered, most organizational learning initiatives are deemed complete. A critical learning opportunity is being squandered here. Ample practice opportunities following training can help to establish long-term retention and support performance goals.
Long-Term Retention Using Spaced Learning
When I think back on my school and college years, some of my most distinct recollections are of studying for tests late at night, operating on pure adrenaline, and almost entirely on worry. I still have nightmares of blanking out during an exam more than 20 years later, and I’m quite sure I’m not alone. How much did I retain after years of formal education where academics were the primary focus? Let’s be honest: very little. The only things we tend to remember from formal schooling are those we’ve been able to apply in some form during life and work: concepts that we’ve reviewed in various forms frequently and have had the opportunity to apply in real-world situations.
This can be traced, at least to some extent, to what Hermann Ebbinghaus called the “forgetting curve,” which describes how humans forget freshly acquired information over time. Though Ebbinghaus’ idea has been questioned for many reasons, several researchers have linked the encoding of information into long-term memory to the frequency with which that information is presented. Benjamin Storm’s paper titled “The Benefit of Forgetting in Thinking and Remembering” is an insightful article of relevant studies that emphasizes the fact that “the ability to retrieve and generate information that is wanted, relevant and appropriate is made possible by the ability to inhibit, and thus forget, information that is unwanted, irrelevant, and inappropriate.”
What Does This Mean for Instructional Design?
One of the efficient strategies to improve our learning is to “interrupt the process of forgetting” (Brown et al., 2017), which implies retrieving data from memory several times at regular intervals. Clark N. Quinn expands on two additional applications of spacing in instructional strategies in his book Designing mLearning: spaced practice (enabling learners to utilize the skills in varied contexts at regular intervals to solidify concepts) and spaced assessment (reactivating the information by presenting learners with tests that trigger recall at spaced intervals). Using these tactics not only makes the information survive longer in memory but also makes subsequent retrieval easier. One obvious advantage of this is that when information becomes more easily retrievable from memory, it may be applied to a broad range of settings and situations.
There are three major reasons why spacing of learning can be successful, according to Hintzman, Dempster, and Russo et al. Let us analyze them from the standpoint of learning design:
- Encoding variability – the act of obtaining information and storing it in long-term memory.
According to the encoding variability theory, if the information is presented numerous times at spaced intervals via a variety of modalities, there is a deeper encoding of this knowledge, resulting in long-term retention and a deeper comprehension of the core ideas and linkages.
- Adaptive learning strategy—learning through retrieval errors
It is now thought that because the spacing of learning interventions allows for some forgetting, learners are more inclined to fail in the early retrieval efforts. This encourages students to process information more thoroughly and thoroughly.
- Effective processing, which leads to long-term memory success
According to research, repetitions in quick succession are less effective than separated repetitions in achieving long-term memory encoding. This can be linked to weariness, mental tiredness, or the familiarity trap, which occurs when the same information is read repeatedly in close succession. Spaced repetitions allow for some forgetting between interventions, resulting in stronger memory connections and easier recovery over time.
Is This Proof That We’ve Found the Magic Sauce?
Simply put, no! Spaced retrieval is useless unless it is accompanied by an efficient learning technique. It is, at best, a retention enhancer, not a stand-alone training method.
In today’s corporate environment, most firms expect L&D to be outcome-driven and insist on measuring its impact in terms of ROI. This means that the function of learning and development has evolved from “teaching” topics to “enabling” learners to perform in a competitive work environment. In my upcoming piece, I’ll aim to look into how different forms of spaced learning might be used within various learning modalities and delivery techniques to support better workplace educational objectives.