Even if you carefully structure your training to create digestible learning sessions, research shows that new learning can sometimes interfere with previously learned content. Today’s material can crowd out yesterday’s, impairing the long-term memory of one or both of the topics.
The good news is that a simple addition to your workplace learning program can prevent this type of interference and help solidify learners’ newly acquired skills.
Psychologists at Tel-Aviv University explored whether a small intervention could prevent “interference” when learning two new skills within close proximity. They divided subjects into two groups – a control and an experimental group.
Both groups were taught a computer-based task and given time to practice. The next day, the control group was taught a second task, similar to first. After practicing the new task, they were asked to perform the task they’d learned the previous day.
As expected, their performance on first task plummeted, dropping by an average of approximately 30%, after being trained on the second task.
The experimental group underwent a similar regimen, but with one crucial difference: On the second day, they were told to briefly practice the task they’d already learned first. Then they were taught the new task. And after that, they were tested on the first task.
This design — first practice the old task, then learn the new one — headed off the performance decline and protected them from the interference that the control group had experienced.
It gets better: A month later, the two groups were tested again on both tasks. They found that the experimental group was able to perform both tasks at a higher level than the control group, who still showed the effects of the learning interference.
The researchers concluded, “Our research demonstrates that the brief reactivation of a single learned memory, in appropriate conditions, enables the long-term prevention of, or immunity to, future interference… [W]hen a learned memory is reactivated by a brief cue or reminder, a unique time window opens up. We utilized this knowledge to discover a mechanism that enabled long-term stabilization, and prevention of task interference…”
The takeaway from the research is clear: Before teaching your learners something new, reactivate the memory of the last thing you taught them.
For example: Suppose you’re presenting two new closing techniques to the sales team. In the first session, teach one technique and give your learners time to practice and ask questions.
When you reconvene for the next session, start with a refresher on the first technique and give people a chance to practice it again. Then move on to the second technique.
Herszage, J., & Censor, N. (2017). Memory reactivation enables long-term prevention of interference. Current Biology, 27(10), 1529-1534.
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