We have all been there. We have a test coming up that we haven’t really prepared for, so we cram over a period of a day or two. Maybe we even do well on the test, but of course we rapidly forget what we have learned. We don’t really need Ebbinghaus and his Curve of Forgetting to tell us this:
Now, we may think we left this sort of behavior behind in college, but the irony is that this is still the way most life science training is conducted. We provide our learners with a huge amount of information over a relatively short period of time, administer a mastery exam and then check the training box.
We also know that this is problematic: What is forgotten cannot be transferred and pulled-through for use on the job. In an echo of the Ebbinghaus curve, in a 2004 study Robert Brinkerhoff of Western Michigan University found that 80% of training was not transferred back to the job.
So what can you do?
The Case for Continuous Learning
What you can do to promote long term retention, transfer and pull-through is convert your learning from events into processes by employing a continuous learning strategy. But what specifically does this mean? What are the practical steps to do it? Let’s begin by expanding the Forgetting Curve to also include the Learning Curve:
Now we have a view of the entire learning and forgetting process. continuous learning means intervening at all stages of this process. You can intervene to improve learning before it occurs and while it is occurring (just before and during the learning event itself) and you can improve learning retention, transfer and pull-through in the weeks and months after the learning event. So a successful continuous learning strategy will be represented by the green icons below the curve:
Let’s look at each of these continuous learning opportunities:
1. Priming Exam – Normally when you give an exam before a class begins it is for diagnostic purposes (how much do the learners already know?) but research has shown that testing learners on material they have not yet seen helps improve their learning during the course.
2. Cumulative Exams – Most eLearning has embedded exams. Typically, the structure is:
But research has shown that including content questions from prior modules in each module test improves learning and retention. So a cumulative exam strategy would look like this:
3. Review and Reinforcement – After the learning event, use adaptive questioning to allow learners to review and reinforce what they learned. An adaptive questioning algorithm will present missed questions more often than questions answered correctly. Adaptive questioning takes advantage of the well-known testing effect, which says that repeated questioning is better than repeated studying.
4. Social Learning – Most of you have heard of the 70:20:10 concept, which says that 70 percent of learning occurs through job related experiences, 20 percent occurs through interaction with others (often managers/coaches) and only 10 percent occurs through formal courses. There is a lot wrong with this claim, but a full critique is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, whatever the percentages actually are, there is no doubt that lots of learning comes informally through personal interaction and experience. Today most LMS systems have some form of social/collaborative learning platform as an option.
5. Subscription Learning – Despite what you may have read, microlearning does not substitute for formal courses, even for millennials. But microlearning delivered by subscription spaced out over time is an excellent reinforcement mechanism and takes advantage of the well-known spacing effect. And, if you intersperse different topics in the subscription content you can take advantage of the interleaving effect as well.
6. Longitudinal Testing – Most of our learners (often all) will pass a mastery exam immediately after course completion. But what about one month later, three months later, six months later? You can use longitudinal testing to diagnose those areas where remediation and subscriptions are needed.
7. Games and Contents – Incorporate gamification into your continuous learning strategy. Research shows that games and contests motivate learners, and there is now some evidence also showing learning benefits.
8. Authentic Assessments – This is a hot topic at the moment and worthy of a separate article on its own. Typically we test in two ways: (1) knowledge-based assessments to determine mastery of material and (2) observational assessments to measure skills. Authentic Assessments combine the two, the theory being that knowledge needs to be demonstrated within the context of performance.
9. Coaching – We all know that continuous feedback from managers is critical to employees’ ongoing development (the “20” part of 70:20:10).
You don’t need to use each and every one of these continuous learning strategies for every learning opportunity. You can pick and choose the strategies most appropriate for each learning event. But, research definitively shows that continuous learning improves learning retention, transfer and pull-through.