Instructional Design

Increase Learning Retention With These Three Techniques

As a learning professional it’s often difficult to figure out what really works with training. There’s an endless cycle of buzzwords and new ideas to search through, and no end of businesses wanting to sell you the latest and greatest program that’s guaranteed to work. Lucky for us there’s been a recent upswing in research to identify practical techniques that increase learning and diminish forgetting. So let’s take a look at three very simple techniques that work, and the best thing is, you probably already do some (or all) of them.

Learning Through Testing

It’s pretty common for learning events (e-learning, instructor led sessions, etc.) to test learners. A typical course progression would be to present information, then test at the end of the course. Typically the test is to see what students have learned but events that force learners to recall information can actually help them retain information.

Roediger and Karpicke (2006) had students read a passage and two minutes later re-read the passage (study-study condition) or read and write as much information as they could recall (study-recall condition). When tested immediately afterwards the study-study subjects recalled 81% of the information while the study-recall group recalled 75% of the information. However, when tested a week later the study-study group recalled 42% while the study-recall group recalled 56%. 

You can see why the study-study condition is so popular. It appears to provide an advantage over study-test in the short term. The problem is that the advantage fades after time. If you never retested days (or weeks) later, you might not realize that learners using what initially seemed to be the superior method forgot almost half of what they learned a week later.

Spacing Practice

Massed practice vs. spaced practice.

One of the oldest and most well known methods of increasing retention is spacing practice. Material presented in one large block (massed) is not retained as well as material presented across multiple sessions (spaced). It makes you wonder about educational “boot camps” doesn’t it? On the other hand, it provides some evidence that breaking information up and delivering via micro-learning over time isn’t just a flavor of the moment, but has some proven benefits.

For a practical application Cepeda, Vul, Rohrer, Wixted, and Pashler (2008) found that spacing should be 5-10% of the test delay. So if your learners had to know something 100 days from now, you should space the learning events somewhere between 5 and 10 days.


Blocking vs. Interleaving

Blocked practice vs. interleaved practice.

This one is interesting because it’s contrary to the way so many things are taught. Statistics students might have a block of problems in which they had to find the median, then a block finding the average, then a block finding the standard deviation. Mixing (interleaving) those problems in a practice session is much more efficient. With a little thought it’s easy to see why. Finding the answer involves not just performing the calculations but knowing which calculations to perform.

The technique also works with motor skills. When baseball players practiced hitting three types of pitches interleaved (meaning they didn’t know which pitch was coming next) they performed better in subsequent tests in which they didn’t know the type of pitch in advance – essentially what would happen in an actual game. Being able to hit a pitch when you know it’s coming is one thing, but being able to hit a pitch without knowing what’s coming is a skill you would need in an actual game.

Why Aren’t These Learning Strategies More Popular?

The strategies outlined here aren’t more expensive to implement than the less effective strategies. Part of the reason has to do with the initial effectiveness. In many cases the more effective strategy causes more errors during the learning session – although they are more effective during testing. Another reason may be learners assessment of their own learning. When learners re-read study (study-study) material they tend to overestimate how well they know the individual facts of what they have read. When forced to recall from memory what they have read (study-recall), their estimations tend to be much more accurate.

I hope you’ll find these techniques useful. If you’re an experienced instructional designer or teacher you probably already have ideas about how to apply these to your work. I’d like to hear about how people are using these strategies, so feel free to comment below if you have an idea to share.

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