How to Use Spaced Practice to Support Memory in Job Training

How to Use Spaced Practice to Support Memory in Job Training

The human brain is amazing. And so are the human abilities to learn new information and skills, remember them, and later retrieve and use them when it's needed.

But if you're involved in training and/or learning and development, you also know it's not all that easy. And one of the big problems is that people tend to forget much of what they learned in training.

We've addressed some of the reasons why this happens earlier in our articles Why Don't People Remember Their Training? and How People Learn (or Don't). In this article, we're going to continue looking at issues related at this general theme of forgetting and how to better support memory after training.

In particular, we're going to focus our attention more specifically on the learning curve, the forgetting curve, and spaced practice. We think this will make you see more value in refresher training, for one thing. But we'll include tips for using spaced practice at points of the learning and development cycle beyond just refresher training, too.

The Learning Curve, the Forgetting Curve, and Spaced Practice

You're probably familiar with the ideas listed above. When a person is learning something, they get better and better at it over a period of time. That's the learning curve.

Then, especially if they don't use that new information or skill frequently, they tend to forget the information and/or lose the skill. That's the forgetting curve.

But this tendency to forget the new information or lose the new skill can be slowed or even reversed if the person uses the new information or skill in practice sessions spaced out over time. That's spaced practice.

That use of spaced practice to reduce or reverse forgetting is known by a number of names, including:

  • Spaced practice
  • Distributed practice
  • Spacing learning
  • Spaced learning
  • The spacing effect
  • Good old-fashioned refresher training

We're going to take a deeper look at each of these below.

The Learning Curve

In general terms, people learn "the basics" of something quite quickly, and then move from competence to expertise more slowly.

For conversational purposes, you can think of a "typical" learning curve as looking something like the one below, with fast initial growth followed by smaller, marginal gains.

Typical Learning Curve Image

We're going to return to this idea of the learning curve, but this sets the stage well enough for now.

NOTE: Although the graphs we've drawn for this article are based on evidence from studies, and so are based in research-tested fact, the graphs (and the data they suggest) are drawn merely to explain the concepts.

In short, we drew them to help explain the ideas to you, but don't think these are 100% accurate representations of test data or that you'll get the exact same results. Or, to put it another way, I'm just a writer trying my best to make some OK graphs to visually represent ideas. 🙂

The Forgetting Curve

As a trainer, you may get excited about the learning curve.

But that excitement may soon fade when you learn about its evil twin, the forgetting curve.

(Actually, there are lots of good reasons why it's important for people to forget things, and it's even associated with why we sleep, but we'll skip those fascinating points for now.)

The forgetting curve is the name for the human tendency to forget things we've learned. And we typically lose that new information or the ability to perform those skills very quickly.

The forgetting curve is essentially like looking at the learning curve in the mirror. Most of the information disappears very quickly, as shown below.

Typical Learning and Forgetting Curves Image

Kind of depressing, huh? If you're relying solely or primarily on "one-and-done training" and aren't happy with the results, much of the answer for that is shown in the graph above.

(Reminder: The image above is just visual representations of general idea. For our purposes, don't worry about the specifics of the data or any evidence or lack thereof for the so-called Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve).

Spaced Practice: Good for What Ails You

So if the learning curve left you as a trainer with something like a sugar buzz, then the forgetting curve no doubt brought the inevitable sugar crash. Just like it does for learners.

And so the obvious question is, what can you do to help learners retain that new knowledge and those new skills, or possibly even build upon and increase them, instead of losing them? How can you better support memory?

Or, to continue our nutrition analogy, you want to replace the fast-burning sugar and refined grains (like white bread) and replace it with healthy fruit, veggies, and whole grains.

In general terms, that's part of what the field of instructional design is all about. Facilitating effective learning experiences that help people learn, remember, and later apply knowledge and skills.

And more specifically, spaced practice is one of the techniques that's most proven to combat the forgetting curve and help to reduce forgetting or even increase learning.

Consider the following quotes about spaced practice and the evidence behind its effectiveness.

From Dr. Will Thalheimer at Work-Learning Research, Inc:

"The 'spacing effect' is one of the most reliable findings in the learning research, but it is, unfortunately, one of the least utilized learning methods in the workplace learning field."

From Henry Bahrick & Lynda Hall, in Journal of Memory and Language (2005, page 566):

"The spacing effect is one of the oldest and best documented phenomena in the history of learning and memory research."

(Note: Both of the quotes above are included in Dr. Will Thalheimer's "Spacing Learning Over Time" white paper, which is a highly recommended resource on this topic from a highly regarded learning professional).

So, if spaced practice has so much evidence as a cure for the forgetting curve blues, why not put it into practice at your workplace?

Keep readin' and we'll keep explainin'.

Strategies for Training That Increases the Learning Curve and Decreases the Forgetting Curve

In this section, we'll take a closer look at some training strategies you can use to facilitate learning and combat forgetting.

In doing so, we'll focus on three things:

  1. What you can do to help employees comprehend information and/or learn skills more effectively during the initial training
  2. How you can use spaced practice during the initial training event to improve later memory retention
  3. How you can extend the learning curve past the point of the initial training by using spaced practice

Notice that we're breaking what you can do during the initial training into two separate categories--things you can do to increase comprehension and skill acquisition, and things you can do to help the learner retain that information or skill longer after the training--in addition to talking about using spaced practice after the initial training is over. Points 1 and 2 address stuff you'll do during the initial training, and points 2 and 3 address spaced practice.

1. Improving Comprehension (Understanding) of Knowledge and/or Skill Development During the Initial Training

Although we're focusing on improving retention of newly learned knowledge and newly developed skills in this article, it's worth remembering that job 1 for trainers is to help employees understand that information and develop those skills in the first place.

Be sure to use these techniques and others during the learning event in order to improve comprehension:

Remember, you could do much worse than read Julie Dirsken's classic book Design for How People Learn to get some more strategies for this.

And with that important (if perhaps obvious) note mentioned, let's move on to using spaced practice to defeat the forgetting curve.

2. Using Spaced Practice During Initial Training to Combat the Forgetting Curve

What we just covered immediately above--about how it's important to help people understand information and acquire new skills during a training event--may be obvious to you. We apologize for the 101-level approach, if so.

But what may NOT be so obvious is that during the initial training, you should also do things to help people remember the information in the training (or retain the skill). And therefore reduce the forgetting curve. Many trainers focus solely on comprehension and neglect to build in support for memory and retention during that initial training. But if you're not doing this, you're not doing all you can to help learners. And you're setting yourself up to be a victim of the dread forgetting curve.

So how can spaced practice help? In a few ways. Let's begin by looking at using spaced practice during the initial or primary learning event.

This may come as a surprise, but you can use spaced practice during the initial learning event to help reinforce the learners' memory. You can do this by returning to the key points at different times throughout the training.

Presenting the same information within the initial training, either in the exact same form or in a slightly altered form, will have the two following effects:

  1. Make it a little harder for learners to learn the content--this means the learning curve will flatten a little bit (this is one of those so-called "desirable difficulties" of training)
  2. Make it easier for learners to remember the content--this means the forgetting curve will flatten a great deal

Take a look at the graph below for an illustration.

The blue line represents a situation in which no spaced practice was provided during the initial training. Notice that learners find it a LITTLE easier to learn during the initial training, but the forgetting curve is very steep.

The orange line represents a situation in which spaced practice was used during the initial training. Notice in this case that learners find it a little harder to learn during the initial training event (but only a little and it's a temporary issue). But also notice that they forget much less after the training. Seems like a worthwhile trade-off, no?

Learning Curve with Spaced Practice During Initial Learning Event Image

Note: I assume we're all up to speed re: these graphs and I don't have to keep saying "the specific percentages and times aren't exact," right?

3. Using Spaced Practice After Initial Training to Combat or Reverse the Forgetting Curve

Of course, the idea of using spaced practice AFTER the initial training is probably what most people are familiar with. Most folks are familiar with the idea of refresher training.

But have you ever wondered if there's really value to refresher training? If so, check out the graph below, which shows how refresher training delivered via repeated space practice events helps to buoy the learners' retention rate.

It's clear that spaced practice after training can significantly decrease the forgetting curve.

Spaced Practice After Training image

We're going to write a future blog post that gives you a host of ideas of the types of spaced practice you can use after the initial learning event to support memory and combat the forgetting curve, so please keep your eyes open for that.

Reminder: Using Spaced Practice DURING Initial Training and After Is Even Better

The two sections immediately above have explained and illustrated that using spaced practice DURING the initial training will improve the forgetting curve and that using spaced practice AFTER the initial training will also improve the forgetting curve.

A savvy reader like yourself probably figured out that using spaced practice BOTH during and after the initial training will improve improve the forgetting curve even more. And you'd be right, oh savvy reader.

So a best practice would be using spaced practice both during and after the initial learning event.

But what About Pre-Training?

An additional point to make about the benefits and use of spaced practice is that all of the examples and illustrations above work on the assumption that there's an initial or primary training event.

Starting from that assumption, we talked about the value of spaced training during and after that initial/primary learning event. And that's all true.

But of course, the repeated nature of spaced practice brings to mind the ability to deliver some form of pre-training before that initial training (which we'll now refer to as the "primary" training instead).

Delivering pre-training would allow learners to already have some familiarity with the learning material even before they begin by the primary training session. And that would allow the learner to begin benefiting from spaced practice even earlier.

The following two illustrations hopefully make this clearer.

The first illustration represents the idea of a primary training (which may or may not included spaced training) coupled with post-training spaced practice. As we've already seen, this use of spaced practice can improve retention.

Primary Training and Post-Training Spaced Practice Image

And this second illustration represents the idea of a pre-training, a primary training, and post-training spaced practice. This use of spaced spaced practice will increase retention even more.

Pre-Training; Primary Training; Post-Training Spaced Practice Image

Note: Pre-training can be useful, but you've got to keep in mind that some employees will complete that pre-training and others may not. That will leave you with a classroom management issue during the primary training session. This is something called out to me by Dr. Will Thalheimer during a discussion on spaced practice. I'll link you to his thoughts on that when I publish that interview (coming soon--hold me to it!).

Using eLearning Courses and Learning Management Systems (LMSs) to Facilitate Spaced Practice

There are lots of ways to incorporate spaced practice in workforce learning over time, and as a training manager you can use various training delivery methods to do that (such as instructor-led training, written training materials, videos, etc.).

It's worth noting, though, that online learning solutions, including eLearning courses and learning management systems (LMSs) for delivering that training, can play a key role in providing spaced practice.

eLearning courses courses like those shown in the samples below are handy for delivering training over the time periods that spaced practice calls for. They'd be an easy way to assign pre-training, for example, and could also be delivered after the primary training event for refresher training.

Conclusion: Spaced Practice Increases Memory and Helps to Defeat the Learning Curve

Please share your own thoughts about spaced practice, the learning curve, and the forgetting curve.

In future articles, we're going to dig deeper into various aspects of these topics and try to give you some more useful tips for applying them at work.

In the meantime, if you'd like to read more on this topic on your own, we recommend "Spacing Learning Over Time" by Dr. Will Thalheimer. We referred to Dr. Thalheimer's article ourselves while doing research for this article and in the article itself. Plus we'll soon be publishing an interview with Dr. Thalheimer on the topic of spaced practice.

Another interesting resource about how and why we forget is this article by Patti Shank.

Hope those two keep you fascinated until we write on this topic again. Don't forget to come back!

Want to Know More?

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