Suppose you’re running a training session for your employees on, say, avoiding malevolent gossip in the workplace. (Or something else; you choose.) Which of the following three circumstances would be the most conducive to learning?
a) Intermittent loud ringing of different cell phones
b) A library-quality silence
c) Soothing classical music playing at low volume in the background
If you answered b or c, you’re in for a surprise: In fact, a recent study suggests that distractions — represented in this case by the erupting cell phones — can actually help people retain knowledge in the long term.
Interrupting the test
The study used 80 students at the University of Toronto, in Canada. The researchers, led by Israeli academic Yoav Kessler, asked participants to memorize a series of pictures.
The next day, the participants were split into two groups and given a memory test. One group of students took the test in the normal way, but the others had to perform an unrelated task between each question. In other words, they were intentionally distracted.
If the point had been merely to look at the results of the test, the study would have concluded that distractions are bad for learning. The distracted group did worse on the test.
But that wasn’t the point. The point was to study longer-term learning — in other words, retention — and by that measure the distractions worked beautifully: When both groups took a second test the next day, the distracted group scored much higher.
Why did the distractions help with retention?
When people have to work really hard to learn something, it’s more likely to stick with them. This is what behavioral scientists call “desirable difficulties.”
So what are we saying about your next training session? That you should encourage everybody to make a lot of noise and bother the learners around them? Of course not.
But what you might want to do as a result of the study is find a way to keep your learners off-balance. You might stop unexpectedly and ask them to do deep knee bends for a minute or two. You might give them a pop quiz on their knowledge of the latest celebrity gossip in the middle of the session. Anything to divide their attention and force them to concentrate all that much harder on what you want them to take away and remember.
Source: Kessler, Y., et al. (2014). Divided attention improves delayed, but not immediate retrieval of a consolidated memory. PLoS ONE, 9(3): e91309. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091309
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