Thursday, July 26, 2012

Accomplish Spaced Learning with eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

Most of us know that cramming isn't a very effective learning strategy. At least not for long-term recall. Some of us figured it out on our own in school, and some of us were warned about the perils of cramming by our parents or teachers.

So why do we sometimes design our training to be like cram sessions?

Think full-day (even multi-day) workshops crammed with more product information, or sales skills, or whatever, than anyone could possibly absorb in that amount of time.

Hermann Ebbinghaus could've also warned us about cramming back in the late 1800s. Ebbinghaus was among the earliest researchers to contribute to our understanding of learning and memory. And although his work is over 100 years old, the findings related to cramming -- or rather, spaced learning -- are still relevant.

The concept of spaced learning is pretty intuitive, really. It suggests that we retain newly learned knowledge longer when taught repeatedly over a period of time. But simply repeating the exact same learning activity several times isn't the way to go. After all, even an attentive learner may accidentally zone out when listening to a lecture or reading a passage for a second (or third, or fourth) time. So, the trick is to ensure there are variations. In an educational setting, this can be an advantage of study groups. Even if the group gets together a few times to review the same material, the conversation is likely to differ somewhat during each meeting. This not only helps maintain learners' attention, but it can also help plant the knowledge more firmly into long-term memory and create more triggers to assist with recall later.

The flexibility eLearning offers makes it a practical way to accomplish spaced learning within a training design.

With instructor-led training, a single-day workshop may offer the most logistically convenient and seemingly cost-effective approach. With the flexibility of time and geography that eLearning offers, reinforcing content repeatedly over time becomes more feasible.

How might this work?

Imagine a course on troubleshooting equipment failures. An initial course (taught by an instructor or via eLearning) might introduce some problem-solving principles, perhaps teach learners how to use available job aids or other performance support tools, and then provide practice opportunities with basic and intermediate scenarios. The next week, you might prompt learners to complete an eLearning exercise of more basic and intermediate scenarios. The following week, learners complete another eLearning exercise of scenarios, this time moving toward more advanced problems. With multiple sessions building learners' skills over time, they may be more likely to have truly mastered the material in a way they can recall opposed to simply reflecting on a whirlwind workshop that seemed good at the time, but seems quite fuzzy later.

Have you tried this approach?

If you've used eLearning with a spaced learning design, how did it work out? In what ways was it effective? And what challenges did you encounter?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Shelly,
    I'm glad you've written about this important strategy. eLearning is a perfect medium for this and one of the failures of workplace training in general is the lack of continuing support. I think social media is another way to provide additional practice and discussion.
    Connie Malamed


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