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Learning Without the Fire Hose: Can We?

Let’s say that you want your team members to learn and remember something important. Let’s say they have a lot of…

  • New rules and regulations to remember. For compliance, say.
  • Or you want to enhance and reinforce safety practices.
  • Or there’s a whole new product line for sales folks to learn.
  • Or the customer service reps have software updates to master.

What if the way we usually train people is a little too much like hitting them with a fire hose? What if it flies in the face of what we know about how people learn?

03-21 Daisies in the Sun

Give the Learning a Little Space

Here are four areas where organizations often set up learning opportunities that don’t work as well as they could. See what you think.

  1. How to use time? Should you have people…
    1. Study (work at learning) for many hours at once
    2. Study for a short time, then later another short time, then later another…
  2. How to use location? Should you…
    1. Keep the learning environment consistent (for example, in the classroom, or via a particular elearning program)
    2. Provide opportunities to learn in multiple contexts
  3. How to organize content? Should you…
    1. Have folks learn one topic until they “have it,” then move on to related topics
    2. Provide a set of related topics together
  4. How to use quizzes or tests? Should you…
    1. Avoid tests, because adults don’t like them
    2. Use tests frequently, because they are a powerful tool for learning

So Often, So Normal. Here’s what often happens:

  1. We schedule training in concentrated doses. Many times we offer lessons packed into long days of classes.
  2. We provide courses that exist, not only in one chunk of time, but also in just one place. A classroom. The LMS. Study here; get back to work.
  3. We present one main topic per module, one module at a time.
  4. And we either avoid testing or we don’t use knowledge checks or quizzes to their full advantage as learning tools.

Why? Efficiency. Mostly, we do training this way to make the logistics work out better.

  1. It’s easier to pull people into class for a few days than to give them shorter lessons, over time, as part of their work days. How do you schedule that? How can people commit, for example, to 12 short lessons over a 6-week period? If it’s instructor led, then how do you schedule the trainers or the training rooms?
  2. It’s challenging to infuse learning into the workplace. What would that look like? That sounds like a lot of coordination. We’d encourage studying in a whole variety of contexts: classrooms, online, conference rooms, staff meetings, the company newsletter, at people’s desks, on walks, in a coffee shop, at home…
  3. It seems more organized to provide one topic at a time. Plus, logically, how do we imagine that we can learn more from content that’s a bit mixed up… a variety of things at once? (Turns out we can, and we would, if we had the chance.)
  4. Learners complain about tests. Plus, they’re not that easy to write. And they take time. So maybe we can just leave them out.

In case you’re wondering, the right answers to the questions above are the second one in each case. There’s a lot of research to back this up.

What if, on the path to supporting learning, we find ways around the logistics? We’d have to be a little creative.

  • Shorter lessons.
  • Over a longer timeframe.
  • In a variety of contexts.
  • While mixing up the topics, at least a little.
  • With knowledge checks to strengthen learning.

Check out the resources for this article. You’ll find interesting, well-reasoned descriptions of what we’ve learned from research. Also there are links to what a couple of leaders in our field are writing about how to apply at least some of these principles. Jane Hart writes about Learning Flows, and Will Thalheimer about Subscription Learning.

There’s a lot of room for creative approaches. I’d love to hear about what works for you.


Article | Kornell (2010). Study better: Space It Out and Mix It Up

Article | Carey (2010). Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits

Site | Jane Hart: Beyond the Course: The Learning Flow

Site | Will Thalheimer: Subscription Learning

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