In training, it seems that variety helps learners do a better job retaining and applying what they’ve learned.
Reason: Changing things up builds multiple neural pathways to the information, so trainees have more ways to access it and more ways to connect it to a new situation.
It’s well established that “test-enhanced learning” – that is, giving learners tests on the material as they learn – increases long-term retention of the material.
But the goal of training isn’t simply to have people remember what they’ve learned. It’s to have people transfer what they’ve learned to the real world.
The gold standard for most trainers is what academics call “far transfer” – the ability to apply the learning to new situations. That’s been notoriously difficult to achieve.
A series of experiments at Washington University looked at whether test-enhanced learning could improve far transfer among students.
Specifically, the experiments exposed learners to a variety of test formats, so that learners would have more ways to engage with the material.
In one experiment, two groups of undergraduate psychology students were given a lesson on the anatomy of bat wings.
The first group (the experimental group) was given a series of tests as part of the lesson. These tests fell into three categories:
- Recall. The students were asked to recall facts that the instructors had presented.
- Compare. Then students were asked to compare what they’d learned to an earlier lesson on bird-wing anatomy.
- Apply. Next, they had to apply this learning to a new situation: They were asked to imagine how to design an aircraft wing based on bat-wing anatomy.
The second group (the control group) was told to study the material, but didn’t get the recall tests, the comparison task or the application task.
Afterwards, both groups were tested. The experimental group significantly outscored the control group, getting nearly twice as many correct answers.
Researchers concluded that the variety of learning contexts created multiple pathways in the brain, and thus strengthened retrieval.
The study suggests that training will be more effective if you build in multiple ways for learners to access the material.
Specifically, you can incorporate the three approaches used in the experiment: Recall, Compare and Apply:
1. Recall. Learners can’t use knowledge they haven’t acquired. So start with basic recall exercises designed to get the facts embedded in the brain.
Throughout the training, create multiple opportunities for trainees to recall what they’ve learned. Every time a fact is retrieved, the pathway becomes stronger.
These retrieval opportunities can be simple – ask a few questions or do a quick quiz.
For example, if you’re training managers on delegation, you might ask, “Who remembers the number-one misconception that managers have about delegation?”
Don’t be shy about returning to the question again and again. For example, in the middle of a session, go back and ask a question from material you covered earlier.
2. Compare facts to what they already know. Ask questions that require trainees to tie what they’ve learned to their previous knowledge. That creates a second neural pathway to the material.
Example: You’re training salespeople on how to get a prospect to open up. Ask them to discuss how these techniques compare to prospecting methods they’ve used in the past: How are they similar? How are they different?
Later, when they’re talking to a prospect, they might think, “With the old way, I’d start talking about solutions at this point. Instead, I’m going to ask the buyer a question to elicit emotion.”
3. Ask them to stretch their minds. Finally, give learners a new, unfamiliar scenario and ask them to apply the learning in that context. This approach connects the material to the imagination, creating a third neural pathway.
Example: On a safety training test on hazard recognition, ask workers to identify hazards for landing on Mars. This imaginative task gives them yet another way to access the material.
Butler, A.C. (2010). Repeated Testing Produces Superior Transfer of Learning Relative to Repeated Studying. Journal of Exp. Psych., 36, 1118-1133.
McDaniel, M. A., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDermott, K. B. (2007). Generalizing test-enhanced learning from the laboratory to the classroom. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 200–206.
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