Training Superglue: Design elements that make learning stick
Are the following statements about learning true or false?
- The best way to learn from a textbook is to read it over and over.
- Learning material is retained if it is easy.
- Practicing a skill over and over leads to successful performance.
- Creativity is more important than knowledge.
- Testing is an ineffective learning tool.
You might be surprised when you check your answers (see the bottom of this article for the key). In their book, “Make It Stick” learning theorists use research to debunk misconceptions about learning (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014). According to the authors, rereading leads to illusions of knowing, or the misconception that recalling textual information means the reader understands its message. A more effective strategy involves retrieval practice (a.k.a. testing) which forces learners to recover information from memory, increasing the likelihood that they will recall it later when they need it. Learning is also ineffective when it’s too easy. Showing learners the correct answers to questions (or a bullet point list) is much less effective than asking them to first come up with the correct answers themselves. You might be surprised to hear that practicing a skill over and over again, exactly the same way, isn’t as effective as practice that is varied and dispersed; even better, allowing a little time between practice sessions makes learners put forth more effort, increasing learning even further. Yes, that’s correct, when learning tasks are difficult but not impossible, knowledge acquisition is more effective. So if you are exerting effort in a course you are learning. Finally, perhaps “creativity is more important than knowledge” if you are Albert Einstein, but for the rest of us, creativity without knowledge is pretty useless. Creativity must follow knowledge so that we have a foundation for analysis, synthesis and creative problem-solving.
- Retrieval practice involves the recall of previously learned information. The best way to do this is with the misused and misunderstood test. This need not be a formal test that will make or break a final grade but can be self-testing, flash cards, or practice tests. Learners will not only get feedback about what they know but will also strengthen their memory of information. Active training strategies that include quiz games or simple self-tests like that at the beginning of this article can enhance learning and recall.
- Intermittent practice means that material isn’t drilled over and over again and then forgotten, but reviewed, tested, and practiced periodically during training. In training, you might start each Module with a quick review of what was learned in previous Modules.
- Mix it up by alternating content. Rather than covering a single idea or concept and then moving on, intersperse ideas, skills, and problems throughout training to challenge learners to stay alert and engaged and force them to also differentiate between concepts.
- Elaborate by asking learners to relate content to what they already know, explain it to someone else, and relate it to life outside of class (ideally back on the job).
- Generation is the attempt to solve a problem or answer a question before providing the solution. In training, you might ask learners to interpret a diagram, take an initial self-quiz, or solve a brief case study before delving into content. This primes prior memory and triggers experiential learning.
- Reflection combines the retrieval of information with elaboration. It can be as simple as asking learners what they recall from training and how they will use it in the future. It can also include a discussion of how the training went—what worked, what didn’t—even a smile sheet can serve as a reflective tool.
- Calibration is the act of checking knowledge with objective feedback. Although tests can serve as feedback, work-based projects, assignments, and case studies are a better gauge of mastery.
- Retrieval tools like mnemonic devices are handy for storing and retrieving information quickly and accurately. Musicians use FACE, geography students recall HOMES, and we use Keep calm at all sporting events to recall Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning.
(Key to self-quiz: all answers are false)
So let’s elaborate . . .
- Which of the 8 practices work best for you in your own learning?
- How will you incorporate the 8 practices in your training design and delivery?