First my thanks to Harold Jarche for his blogpost that alerted me to this piece on the Neurobonkers blog 'The lesson you never got taught in school: How to learn!'. The latter draws attention to and summarises an academic paper called 'Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology'. 10 techniques were evaluated. The context of the study was primarily concerned with students in higher and further education.
Having read the paper I want to use this blog to reflect on the learning technique of distributed practice both because the authors rated it highly in terms of effectiveness and because it's the most relevant to me in terms of its application in the business context.
In summary, distributed practice is about the spacing out of learning episodes over time, compared to cramming, and the optimum gaps between each episode to aid retention.
The conclusions of the paper are that the optimal level of distribution of sessions for learning is 10-20% of the length of time that something needs to be remembered. So if you want to remember something for: a year you should study at least every month; for five years then the spacing should be every six to twelve months; for a week then the spacing should be 12-24 hours apart.
Implications for practice
Managers value the stimulation of periodic learning about management. I know this because this is what some of the participants on my programmes tell me. I also read something similar to this about Decurion, a US real-estate and cinema organisation, which had created a 10 week management course, run by their leaders. Attendance was voluntary and many employees had taken the course several times to enable them to understand the ideas and practices at a much deeper level and to see how to apply them to the business.
In my experience as a management developer, I can sense that my practice and salience increases the more I do it. In one sense there is no real surprise with this point because it is already well understood that teaching others is itself a deep learning method. However, what I notice is that when combined with my prior knowledge and experience as a manager and my interest in management learning practice, regular learning episodes seem to help. So, it is a combination of good practices done regularly - e.g. facilitation, reading, note taking, blogging, which help. The paper makes this point too - distributed practice is about the importance of a schedule of learning activities rather than favouring a particular kind of learning episode.
I did a short piece of research at a UK bank in 2007 that looked at how managers were learning and the methods that worked. Although learning through day-to-day experience came out top, this verbatim extract from one of the research interviews validates the value of distributed learning practice:
“…feels very different…because we were coming back and working on assignments it does feel like a 12/18 month journey and I do feel like I’m applying things because it’s in my thoughts almost every day…more with me than any other kind of training I’ve done before I’d say that 95% of the training I’ve done in the past has been lost probably over the years. I’m sure that I’ve taken some of it in, but the ...[external programme] stuff seems to have the daily reinforcement.”
Notwithstanding the positive effects of distributed practice, there are some important catches.
It may work best when processing information deeply and so for the greatest benefits it looks like it needs to be combined with some level of testing or assessment. The purpose of testing may be twofold: to deepen the learning and introduce a level of formality and structure. In my experience, this is something that many businesses shy away from for a range of cost, operational and/or philosophical reasons.
If you do go down the route of testing, then students tend to cram the activity required for the assessment into the last minute. Human nature? Probably.
If distributed practice is organised around periodic workshops that take delegates off their jobs this creates operational tensions.
Businesses want managers to adapt and change their practices. What this research is pointing to is the importance of using learning practices that aid long term retention. At one extreme sporadic standalone interventions will only deliver short-lived effects and at the other a longer term programme of learning and testing is probably not viable for high volume requirements because of operational and cost reasons.
The gap can be filled by educating learners on how to learn. From a self-help point of view, I like 'A Manager's Guide to Self Development' by Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell. It is based on solid research and contains lots of targeted exercises. The other techniques highlighted by the research paper are also worth exploring because no one solution or approach suits everybody.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (1), 4-58