Learning strategy: why cramming in content is counterproductive
While organisations are keen to get the most from their training sessions and might be tempted to squeeze as much content as possible into sessions, resist the temptation. Our brains don't work that way, and here's why...
When training budgets are under pressure and you find yourself having to do more with less, the obvious response is to cram more content into less time, work longer hours on the programme and keep the pace brisk. There are two key pieces of research, however, that should inform your decision-making on the intensity of your learning programmes and events.
It’s well known that synapses in the brain (the connections between neurons and other cells that allow for the transmission of information) grow when they're learning.
Previously, educators and scientists believed that learning was cumulative; in neuroscientific terms the synapses started small and got progressively bigger and stronger. It now seems, however, that synapses that have recently been strengthened are peculiarly vulnerable, and more stimulation can actually wipe out the effects of learning.
More recent research has shown that, in the short-term, synapses get even stronger than previously thought but then quickly go through a transitional phase when they weaken.
Consider these questions as you read this article:
- Are the programme elements effectively spaced out and paced so people have time to assimilate the material?
- How are people reflecting on the learning?
Brain overload is very much real
We've all had course participants joke about ‘brain overload’ at the end of a long day or following an intensive online programme. It's real. More training during this phase is actually counterproductive. There's no point trying to cram more information into the timetable - you're wasting your resources.
Synapses that have recently been strengthened are peculiarly vulnerable.
It's also been shown that when people have to process complex information giving them time to reflect, if only for a few minutes, makes their decisions much better.
The importance of spacing - having some space between learning and review sessions - can be a little counterintuitive but is nevertheless one of the most important research findings. People tend to believe that cramming the learning into one intense session, as we probably all did before exams, is the best way to learn. This belief is so ingrained that even when people perform better after spacing, they tend to be unaware of it.
One study found that 90% of participants had better performance after spacing than cramming but even so, 72% of the participants reported that they still thought that cramming was more effective. [PDF]
Even when people perform better after spacing, they tend to be unaware of it.
Here are some useful guidelines for spacing in different learning contexts:
Spacing within a single learning event
This can be achieved through having participants undertake a task unrelated to the content or, better still, take a reflection break.
During experiments, this has led to significantly better recall of written passages than passages read all at once. These effects were also shown to be long lasting and persisted for at least a week.
The optimal spacing seems to be a function of how long the information is needed for. A review of spacing research found that for a test undertaken seven days after the final study session, the best retention came from a spacing gap of one day; for a test 35 days later, the optimal spacing gap was 11 days; for a test 70 days later, the optimal spacing gap was 21 days. The authors suggested 10–20% of the test delay would be optimal.
The art of revisiting
In a work environment, learning is seldom done with a single test date or formal check on learned materials in mind. Learning needs to be continually retrievable, both in the short term and the long term. Research indicates that revisiting the information three times is ideal.
This research used an understanding of new concepts, similar to the type of material people might need to learn in a work context. Revisiting the information just once and after a few days brought memory up to about 40% on a test a month and half later. Revisiting the information three times and with a handful of days between each session, however, brought memory on that test up to about 55% - 60%.
Adding additional learning sessions helped, but not enough to warrant the additional effort. This is the type of spacing that can be achieved in virtual programmes or in a series of webinars or modules.
Spacing to include sleep
When building spacing into a programme, the science suggests that an ideal gap is one that includes sleep.
A 12-hour spacing gap during the day (with no sleep) is helpful, but not as good as 12 hours overnight, and sleep is especially relevant for more challenging material.
Sleep has been found to improve retention, insight and making connections between new and old knowledge, and of course it requires no extra cost, effort, or additional total time devoted to learning sessions. Sleeping helps transform pieces of information into long-term memories before they decay and also helps us to disregard irrelevant information.
One way we build this in is to start a one day workshop at lunchtime and finish at lunchtime the following day. The overnight portion provides the sleep to make connection and we see people come back to the programme the next morning with many more insights. It also helps to chunk the content up and to provide time for reflection - all methods which we know increase learning and memory.
How do we manage spacing?
In our own programmes we manage spacing by using a variety of techniques that allow us to repeat the learning without it feeling like the same material is being re-issued over and over in the same context, for example by beginning each module with a review of the learnings from the previous one and reviewing the application of ideas.
Repetition can also happen through facilitation techniques like priming. Priming allows the brain to build the new concept into a larger context, increasing efficiency in learning.
Methods we use to do this include sharing how ideas were applied and getting learners to provide their own related material or sharing new material.
An important thing to remember about spacing...
Despite the research on its benefit, people tend to believe spacing is less important than other learning strategies. Although it outperformed methods like mind maps by roughly 15%, participants in the study thought that they had learned more in the mind mapping exercise.
This article series contains many articles analysing learning from a neuroscience perspective. Want to read more? The full article series can be seen here.