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The Science of Learning, Part 2: So Here’s a Weird Trick… Employees Learn Better When You Mix Up Topics

by Kirsten Liston

· science of learning,Interleaving

Last week, we kicked off the first blog post in a series on the science of learning. As I shared earlier, as part of a recent project with one of our clients, Threat Ready Resources, I talked with professor Henry L Roediger about the concepts explained in his book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

Make It Stick proposes a few “simple and practical strategies that anybody can use to learn better and remember longer.”

Four of these are especially relevant when designing compliance learning:

  • To learn, retrieve.
  • Mix up your practice.
  • To extend learning, use retrieval cues.
  • For better effect, prime the mind for learning first.

We’ll cover the second strategy in today’s post.

Mix Up Your Practice

Friends of mine attended Colorado College, which is famous for its “one course at a time” approach.

Instead of the standard college course load of four or five courses per semester, students at this bucolic campus in Colorado Springs focus on—you guessed it—one course at a time.

The college’s marketing materials treat this as a clear benefit:

Want to study for your biology midterm without worrying about filming your documentary, reading 72 pages of The Odyssey, or training your psychology rat?

 

Why not take just one class at a time?

And maybe it is, from the perspective of a student’s stress level. But parents paying $62,560 for tuition, room, and board might be dismayed to learn that a single-topic focus only feels more effective—and is actually worse for retention or mastery.

As Make It Stick explains, learning or practicing one thing at a time seems more effective because you can see yourself get better faster. That’s why coaches drill on fastballs, or why a musician will spend all afternoon on one song or even one chord progression.

The alternative—switching between multiple songs or different types of pitches or academic subjects—requires more effort. The person practicing sees slower progress, so it feels less rewarding and appears less productive.

But here’s the catch: When learning requires more effort, it sticks with you longer.

That’s why tests are more effective than just reviewing the material again. It’s also why tests are even more effective when they are delayed. When you’ve already begun to forget something, you have to expend more effort to remember it, strengthening your mental pathways to the information and making it easier to recall the next time.

So the musician who switches between three or four songs in an afternoon will play all of them better next week than if she focuses on a single song.

And the baseball player who faces 45 random throws in practice turns out to hit all kinds of pitches better (including fastballs) than the players who just practice fastballs. (In a recent batting practice experiment, the team at California Polytechnic State University discovered this first-hand).

Psychologists call this mixed-up practice “interleaving,” and it produces dramatic benefits in learning everything from music to math.

All of this is completely counterintuitive. As Make It Stick says: “The rapid gains produced by mass practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not.”

In fact, according to the researchers, many study participants continued to insist that single-focus practice produced greater and more permanent improvements—even when it contradicted their own, actual performance in the study.

So how can compliance programs put this insight to use? Try some of these strategies:

  • Think in programs, not just courses. Early on, most compliance programs often followed a “one risk, one course” strategy (e.g., “We’ll train on the Code first, then bribery, then respect…”). At the time, 40-minute courses were the weapon of choice. But, in recent years, there has been a movement towards taking a campaign approach, and building a learning program with items of different lengths. Here, then, you might start with a foundational training that’s 20 minutes long. Two months later, you might send out a short, engaging communication on a different aspect of the same topic. Then you might ask managers to mention the topic as a part of their regularly scheduled meetings, or put something in a newsletter, or write a post to the internal company social media page. The good news: Taking a campaign approach by definition introduces some interleaving, since you’re spacing out learning about a topic over time and mixing it with any other topics your employees are learning. (Bonus points if you use campaigns and regular quizzes or active practice sessions that force learners to recall what they’ve already begun to forget.)
  • If you’re creating custom learning, consider addressing multiple topics. There are practical reasons why most compliance learning programs tackle one topic at a time—first, it allows you address your key risks clearly and in priority order; second, it gives you the ability to segment training by audience, since not every employee needs each course. So, no surprise, most compliance vendors offer single-topic courses (“You have a bribery risk? We have a bribery course.”) If you’re buying courses off the shelf, it may not be worth the time or hassle to mix up the topics. But if you’re already paying for a custom course, consider tackling a few topics that are relevant to your audience instead of just one so you can leverage the learning boost that comes from interleaving.
  • Test employees more often, on both new and older material. If you read last week’s post, you know that, after a learning experience, you can significantly strengthen what employees know and remember just by testing them—at least once but ideally several times. If you do this, try to work interleaving into your test approach. You can start with the topic that employees recently learned but then mix in questions about something they learned earlier in the year or even back when they were onboarded. Employees may grumble if the test forces them to retrieve something they were in the process of forgetting (remember, stronger learning requires effort)—but they’ll be better prepared as a result.

Mixing up your compliance training may be simpler than you think. Ready to incorporate interleaving to make your compliance program more effective? We can help. Sign up for a free consultation with the Rethink Compliance experts.

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