Consider two employee training scenarios. In the first, you give people a week of unbroken training, then send them back to their jobs. In the other, you take the same material but impart it in pieces — train people for a day, put them back to work for a week, train them for another day, return them to the job, and so forth.

Which group of employees would better apply the training to their jobs? You’d probably guess the second group, and you’d be right. Behavioral researchers have proved it in an interesting experiment.

But you might not guess why the second group in the study used the training more effectively and achieved higher performance.

Yes, there was one relatively obvious effect: Spaced learning sticks with people longer. When trainees have to revisit material at intervals, it gets driven deep into memory. Also pretty evident: When you space the learning out, each lesson is shorter, and people don’t have so much to remember.

An extra edge
But, according to the researchers, there were also two less obvious effects at work in the study, which gave an extra edge to those who received the training at intervals rather than in a block.

These effects were related to concepts known as 1) content validity and 2) competence.

Validity measures how strongly trainees feel that the lesson is relevant and realistic — in other words, how it relates to their actual doing of their actual jobs.

Competence measures how much the training makes people better at their jobs — in other words, how much performance improves as a result of the training.

Practical effects
So how did these effects work out in the experiment?

The learners in the “spaced” group, who returned to work after a single day of training, had a chance to check immediately whether the content of the training was valid in relation to their real-world job. When they found that it did, they returned to the next training session with greater belief in and engagement with the training. This “virtuous circle” continued throughout the training.

A similar positive feedback loop accompanied their rapid discovery that the training in fact did make them better at their jobs — the competence effect.

What exactly were the positive results of the training cycle for the interval group? Well, in the case of this experiment, the trainees were salespeople receiving sales training, and the results were relatively easy to measure: The interval group made more money than the “en bloc” group.

But the principle is the same no matter what kind of training you’re giving, to no matter what sort of employees: If you want the learning to sink in and drive results, do it at intervals. This may be a little more logistically complicated and require a bit more administration, but it’s worth it.

Source: Kauffeld, S., Lehman-Willenbrock, N. (2010). Sales training: effect of spaced practice on training transfer. Journal of European Industrial Training, 34(1):23-37.

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