This is the classic ‘forgetting curve’ by Ebbinghaus, a fundamental truth in memory theory, totally ignored by most educators and trainers. Most fixed ’courses’ or ‘lectures’ take no notice of the phenomenon, condemning much of their effort to the world of lost memories. Most educational and training pedagogies are hopelessly inefficient because they fail to recognise this basic truth. Smart learners get it. They revise over a period, with regular doses to consolidate their memories.
Little and often
The real solution, to this massive problem of forgetfulness, is spaced practice, little and often, the regular rehearsal and practice of the knowledge/skill over a period of time to elaborate and allow deep processing to fix long-term memories. If we get this right, increases on the productivity of learning can be enormous. We are not talking small increase in knowledge and retention but increases of 200-700%. It has the potential to radically alter the attainment levels in schools, colleges, universities and organisations. OK, that’s the theory, what about the practice?
What strategies enable spaced practice?
I’ll start with a few ‘learner’ tips, then a few ‘teacher/trainer’ practices and end on some technical techniques.
1. Self- rehearsal – This is very powerful, but needs self-discipline. You sit quietly, and recall the learning on a regular, spaced practice basis. The hour/day/week/month model is one, but a more regular pattern of reinforcement will be more successful. Research suggests that the spacing different for individuals and that it is good to rehearse when you have a quiet moment and feel you are in the mood to reflect. Recent research has shown that rehearsal just prior to sleep is a powerful technique. Another bizarre, but effective, model is to place the textbook/notes in your toilet. It’s something you do daily, and offers the perfect opportunity for repeated practice!
2. Take notes – write up your learning experience, in your own words, diagrams, analogies. This can result in dramatic increases in learning (20-30%). Then re-read a few times afterwards or type up as a more coherent piece. It is important to summarise and re-read your notes as soon as possible after the learning experience.
3. Blogging – if the learner blogs his/her learning experience after the course, then responds to the tutors’, and others’ comments for a few weeks afterwards, we have repeated consolidation, and the content has a much higher chance of being retained.
4. Repetition – within the course, but also at the start of every subsequent period, lesson or lecture, repeat (not in parrot fashion) the ground that was covered previously. Take five or ten minutes at the start to ask key questions about the previous content.
5. Delayed assessment – give learners exercises to do after the course and explain that you will assess them a few weeks, months after the course has finished. This prevents reliance on short-term memory and gives them a chance to consolidate their knowledge/skills.
6. Record – it is education and training’ great act of stupidity, not to record talks, lectures and presentations. They give the learner subsequent access to the content and therefore spaced practice.
7. Games pedagogy – Games have powerful pedagogies. They have to as they are hard. It works through repeated attempts and failure. You only progress as your acquired competence allows. Most games involve huge amounts of repetition and failure with levels of attainment that take days, weeks and months to complete.
8. Spaced e-learning – schedule a pattern in your online learning, so that learners do less in one sitting and spread their learning over a longer period of time, with shorter episodes. Free your learners from the tyranny of time and location, allowing them to do little and often. In education this is homework and assignments, in training subsequent talks that need to be emailed back to the trainer/tutor.
9. Mobile technology – the drip feed of assessment over a number of weeks after the course or redesign the whole course as a drip-feed experience. We have the ideal device in our pockets – mobiles. They’re powerful, portable and personal. Push out small chunks or banks of questions, structured so that repetition and consolidation happens. This usually involves the repeated testing of the individual until you feel that the learning has succeeded.
10. Less long holidays – it terms of public policy, increasing school results would be betters served by avoiding the long summer holiday and restructuring the school, college and University years around more regular terms and less long vacations.
The retention benefit works like compound interest as you’re building on previous learning, deepening the processing and consolidating long-term memory. It is, in my opinion, the single most effective strategic change we could make to our learning interventions.