When you’re training people, you want to keep the learning environment free of distractions: no cell phones, no interruptions, no veering off topic. Right?

Well maybe not.

A recent study suggests that distractions might actually be a good thing.

In the study, participants were asked to memorize a series of pictures. When they returned a day later, they were divided into two groups and given a memory test.

The control group simply took the test, while the other group had to perform a completely unrelated task between each question.

If you think we’re going to tell you that the distracted group did better on the test, you’d be wrong. They did worse.

But when both groups took a second test the next day, the distracted group scored significantly higher.

Why did the distractions help with retention? It’s yet another example of “desirable difficulties” in learning – when people have to work harder to learn something, they’re less likely to forget it.

The practical implication: Don’t be afraid to make training challenging. Throw in a curveball to keep learners on their toes. Keeping learners off balance seems like a bad idea, but it benefits long-term learning.

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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