Sunday, 26 September 2010
No pain, more gain? Research supports "less learning more often"
Many years back, I coined a phrase that neatly summarised my view on how to change current training design and delivery practice so that it can dramatically improve effective learning and performance. My phrase?
Is it happening? Well, it's beginning to it seems. We are clearly recognising that the concentrated, content-heavy course delivery model often fails to transfer effectively to competent performance in the workplace. A new approach that favours little and often, campaign over course, interwoven activities is, counter to many people's current beliefs, far more effective. Not only that, new research at Northwestern University suggests this new way of training could reduce by at least half the effort previously thought necessary to make learning gains.
The research also may be the first behavioral demonstration of meta-plasticity, the idea that experiences that on their own do not generate learning can influence how effective later experiences are at generating learning.
"Prior to our work much of the research into perceptual learning could be summed up as 'no pain, no gain,'" says Beverly Wright, first author of a study in the Sept. 22 Journal of Neuroscience and communication sciences and disorders professor at Northwestern. "Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain."
The Northwestern researchers found that robust learning occurred when they combined periods of practice that alone were too brief to cause learning with periods of mere exposure to perceptual stimuli. "To our surprise, we found that two 'wrongs' actually can make a right when it comes to perceptual learning," says Wright. What's more, they found that the combination led to perceptual learning gains that were equal to the learning gains made by participants who performed twice as much continuous task training (training which by nature of its repetition and length often is onerous).
The findings hold potential for members of the general population with an interest in enhancing perceptual abilities -- for musicians seeking to sharpen their sensitivity to sound, people studying a second language or physicians learning to tell the difference between regular and irregular heartbeats.
This is great news for my me and my son as it means our intuitive, supposedly "lazy" approach to guitar practice, appears to be pretty effective!
In my own article I referred to some earlier research which supports this further:
Back in 2001, the American Psychological Association published (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4) some interesting research. It concluded that practicing different skills in concentrated blocks is not the most efficient way to learn. While focusing on a particular skill leads to a short term boost in performance during the period of training, this leads people to over-estimate how well they learned the skill they practiced and results in poorer long term learning. This has the potential to fool trainers and trainees into believing that the apparent progress made during the training will be sustained in future performance back in the job. In fact, for long-term retention, practicing skills that are mixed with other tasks (contextual-interference practice as the researchers call it) results in better learning.
This has far reaching implications for most training design. It clearly points away from focused training on single skills and concentrated repetitive practice and suggests we design learning experiences that are deliberately interwoven among other tasks, requiring people to actively recall and then practice the new skill over longer time intervals.
As we acquire a better understanding of these learning processes perhaps the wider L & D world will be able to bite the bullet and accept that a more fundamental change in approach is needed. And hey, it looks like learning these new ways may be less effort than you first thought.