Blog »

Instructional Design Mini-Lesson: Distributed Practice

Instructional_Design_Mini-Lesson-Distributed_Practice.jpgIf you’re struggling to help learners who forget what they learned shortly after a training ends, don’t stress—there might be a way to re-organize your course without having to start over from scratch.

Originally developed by a German psychologist in the early 20th century, distributed practice is a highly effective learning strategy that spaces out shorter lessons over a longer period of time. In theory, the delay between lessons offers the learner a chance to consolidate the information and create stronger memories of the content.

This is the opposite of the way many adults recall learning in university or high-school settings, when longer “cram” sessions were the most common ways to prepare for exams—and the least effective way of retaining long-term memories. (Ask the average 35-year-old how to calculate the cosine of an angle, and a look of panic will cross their face.)

In fact, universities tend to encourage these cramming sessions by only scheduling 1-2 exams per course. Students are rarely given the motivation to study in short sessions throughout the entire semester. This learning habit becomes ingrained over time, and carries through to their learning as adults.

So if you’re organizing a corporate training for your employees, it’s likely that a number of them will flip ahead in the schedule to find out when the assessment is, and then try to memorize everything at the last minute in order to prepare. This might work for passing the course, but if your goal is lasting learning outcomes, it’s not an effective strategy.

Spread out your training sessions

Let’s say you need to train employees on a new content management system. Looking over the schedule, you realize you need to choose between:

  1. One 4-hour training session
  2. Two 2-hour training sessions, spaced a week apart
  3. Four 1-hour sessions, spread over the course of a month

While the single-session training might seem the most efficient, it’s actually the four 1-hour sessions that will help your employees learn the system most effectively. Good instruction requires repetition, and simply repeating information to them every few screens during a single-session training doesn’t work. The human brain actually remembers what it has learned recently, and if it senses that information is being repeated too quickly, it spends less energy processing it the second time.

So in a way, by spacing out trainings, you’re tricking the brain into perceiving the content as “new” each time it’s presented—which means more mind power will be delegated to processing the information for long-term memory.

Tips for incorporating distributed practice

Ready to give it a try? Here are some tips that can help create the conditions for long-lasting learning. They can be utilized when developing new courses or used to revamp learning situations that could be more effective.

  • Have learners process information differently each time it’s presented so they are processing it in multiple ways—via video, text, gamification, and even teaching the information back to peers or the instructor.
  • Remind learners why this information will be relevant to their lives or work. By making it personal, you encourage their investment in the material as it’s repeated back.
  • Create opportunities for learners to implement their new knowledge in real-world situations, such as directly applying skills on the job.
  • Break up training into short sessions held weekly or twice a week, rather than holding daylong seminars or weekend workshops.
  • Create assessment opportunities multiple times throughout a course, not just midway and at the end.

In sum, learners need to go over the same pieces of information over and over again, in short bursts that are spaced apart, over a longer period of time. There’s about a century’s worth of research to back this up, and it works for everyone—adults, children, babies, and even animals. By implementing distributed practice in your training, you hedge the safest bet that your learners will remember what you teach them for years to come.