How to keep learners from sabotaging their practice sessions
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How to keep learners from sabotaging their practice sessions

You teach your people a new technique. Then you send them off to practice on their own. Bad idea.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study at Purdue University, which concluded that most learners, left to their own devices, don’t practice effectively.

We’re not talking here about learners who can’t be bothered to practice what they’ve learned. We’re talking about those who think practice is important and do it. The problem is, they’re often not as good at it as they think they are.

The study
The study involved students who were learning vocabulary words for an anatomy course.

Not surprisingly, researchers found that the most effective practice strategy was active retrieval – for example, when students read a definition and had to come up the word, or vice versa.

But when the researchers took a closer look at how the students were practicing on their own, they found that many of them sabotaged their practice in three key ways:

  • They didn’t practice as much as necessary to lock the learning into long-term memory. And when they did practice, they usually quit too soon: As soon as they could recall something once, they’d stop.
  • They thought they’d gotten the right answer when they hadn’t. Because they didn’t check their answers, they were actually reinforcing incorrect information.
  • They exhibited “dramatic bias” in favor of themselves. For example, they often gave themselves partial credit (or even full credit!) for responses that were completely wrong.

Bottom line: When left on their own, learners thought they were practicing effectively. But they weren’t.

Implications for trainers
Trainers spend a lot of time and effort designing their lessons. They need to think just as hard about designing practice activities, and to teach learners how to use them effectively.

Here are some key considerations.

1. Share the research
Use the findings reported in this study to help your learners understand what effective practice looks like, as well as some of the most common pitfalls to avoid.

In particular, emphasize the importance of repetition and perseverance: Help learners see why they need to practice beyond the point of “feeling” like they’ve mastered the material.

Also encourage them to evaluate their own performance objectively. Tell them to check their answers and not move on until they get them right. “Partial credit” may make them feel better, but it’s really the same as a wrong answer: It means they haven’t locked in their learning.

2. Provide tools
Don’t assume learners will know how to practice. Give them tools that help them structure their practice sessions.

For example, provide them with quizzes or other exercises. And give them practice schedules.

Even better, have the learner come up with an action plan for applying a lesson, and then work with you, a colleague or supervisor to execute the plan.

3. Add accountability
Consider these ideas to keep people accountable for working their plan: Assign buddies. Ask people to practice together, with partners or in teams.

The social pressure will help ensure that the practice actually gets done, and will make them less likely to “cheat” by giving themselves partial credit or not checking their answers.

Send spot quizzes to test recall. Let learners know that they’ll be receiving quick follow-up assessments from time to time. When learners know quizzes are coming, they’ll be more motivated to practice. Also, the quizzes will allow you to spot problems and intervene if necessary.

Assign homework – but make it fun. The whole idea of homework, of course, is to get learners practicing on their own. But everybody hates homework.

So don’t call it homework, and don’t make it feel like homework. For example, if you’re training customer-service reps on how to handle difficult customers, don’t just ask them to just recite the principles. Give them scenarios of tough customers and ask what they’d say.

Ask them to report back. For example, at the end of a session, tell people they’ll be expected to report on their efforts in the next session.

If learners know they have to report back, they’ll be more likely to practice, and practice effectively.

Grimaldi, P. J., Karpicke, J.D. (In press). Guided retrieval practice of educational materials using automated scoring. Journal of Educational Psychology.

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