It’s long been advised that learning should be split into bitesize chunks that are easier to digest. But what about when we should consume these? The combination of short assets and a spaced practice to digest them is becoming de rigeur in learning circles. So what does this mean for how we design learning programmes?
Distribute bitesize learning for effective long-term retention
Spaced practice (also called distributed practice) is nothing new. The acclaimed German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus studied its effectiveness back in 1885 as part of his work into how memory affects learning. Various studies have since shown that distributed practice is more effective than massed practice in the retention of learning. But they’ve also demonstrated that this is counter-intuitive and that learners themselves aren’t convinced of the effectiveness. Think of all those exams that you crammed for in school. Do you remember what you revised? I doubt it. If you want to retain something, it’s much better to return to it time after time, in order for it to become embedded. But if people aren’t convinced of this strategy, how can we take them on this journey?
Partly it’s about how we organise the resources that are created and how they're released to learners. You may have seen positive effects from an ongoing communication campaign, and the same principles apply to learning. If people can be drawn back to the same learning over a prolonged period of time, they’ll encounter it within different contexts, meaning there are separate links to retrieval from memory. And it’s not just simple retention of facts we’re after - by applying learning in context, simulating real life environments for carrying out tasks and seeing the consequences of actions, we can grow and deepen learners' understanding and alter their behaviour.
We can’t expect learners to undertake spaced practice of their own accord. We’ve seen the conflict between the reality and their expectations of the best way to learn and remember. So our systems need to work hard to create programmes that disperse learning in an appropriate way. This could be through a steady roll-out of learning materials from your LMS or LCMS. But what about that continual return to resources? This is where social learning comes into play. You can use it not only as a mechanism to push out notifications and messages but also to reinvigorate the topic and keep it alive. For example, creating a poll to garner opinion and using it as a driver to the learning. By returning to the same core messages in engaging ways, you’ll assist learners in making it stick.
Consider also how this approach can apply to blended learning. In the past classroom instruction adhered to a linear module, with one topic covered at a time followed by mass practice (homework). They then don’t get reconsidered until being revised at exam time – where the cons of massed practice come into play again. But with the rise of technology has come the concept of the flipped classroom, where the basics are learnt beforehand and then the practical application is taken up in the group setting. How would you combine this with spaced practice? You could spread out the topics beforehand, using a model which intersperses them or return to the topic regularly after the classroom session.
Digital learning means that there are now possibilities for how we deliver bitesize learning and how we space it. Long-term effective learning is at our fingertips - considered programme design will now put it within our grasp.