Compare and contrast. Sound familiar? Most of us remember this classic prompt from our high school days. But research suggests you may want to dust it off and make it a regular part of your training program.

A study out of Northwestern University shows just how powerful a comparison exercise can be for adult learners. Not only does it boost retention, it increases the likelihood that learners will put their new knowledge in action.

The research

The study took place in a graduate school management program. In a class on negotiation, students learned a new bargaining technique. After class, students were divided into two groups and assigned to different practice sessions.

Group One was asked to review two negotiation scenarios, one at a time. Students were told to consider each scenario in isolation and write down their recommended course of action for each.

Group Two was instructed to read the same negotiation scenarios in tandem and compare the two. Then they were told to write down the core principle or concept that the two had in common.

Both scenarios called for students to apply the new negotiation technique.

The researchers wanted to see if either practice strategy increased the likelihood that learners would apply the technique in a simulated face-to-face negotiation. The results were striking: Group Two – the ones who made a comparison – were three times more likely to apply their new knowledge.

Why the difference?

The researchers said that comparisons push learners to think deeply and critically. Searching for a uniting principle or insight caused the students to dig for the most important information. The comparison exercise also kept the learning fresh in their memory and made it readily accessible when the time came to apply it.

Interestingly, no one in Group One – those who considered each scenario separately – recognized the similarities between the two practice scenarios, even though both were written on the same page.

Learn more about the science behind the Rapid Learning Institute. Check out these 2-minute videos.


Here are two ways you can apply the research in your training program.

Use comparisons to lock in learning. After training your learners on an important topic, ask them to compare it to concepts they’ve learned already. Say, for example, that you’ve just trained salespeople on a new closing technique. You could ask: How does this compare with the closing technique we learned last month? How it is similar? How is it different? In what situations would the new technique be preferable? Why?

Use related examples that reflect real life. In the study, researchers used two negotiation scenarios that mirrored real-world deals. Build examples that show how the core principles are applied in different situations, which will make it easier for learners to apply their new knowledge when the time comes. Also, if there’s more than one “right” way, ask learners to compare different approaches to dealing with an issue. For example, how does coaching an underperforming employee compare to coaching a disruptive employee? Are there similarities? Is there a guiding principle that connects the two?

Thompson, L., et al. (2000). Avoiding missed opportunities in managerial life: Analogical training more powerful than individual case training. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 82(1), 60-75.

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