Learning Strategy: Why Stuffing Content Is Counterproductive


When training budgets are under pressure and you need to do more with less, the obvious answer is to cram more content into less time, work on the program longer, and maintain a steady pace. However, there are two key pieces of research that should inform your decision-making about the intensity of your learning programs and events.

It is well known that brain synapses (the connections between neurons and other cells that allow the transmission of information) develop when they learn.

Previously, educators and scientists believed that learning was cumulative; in neuroscientific terms, synapses started out small and gradually got bigger and stronger. It now appears, however, that synapses that have recently been strengthened are particularly vulnerable, and more stimulation may actually reverse the effects of learning.

More recent research has shown that in the short term, synapses become even stronger than previously thought, but then quickly go through a transition phase as they weaken.

Consider these questions as you read this article:

  • Are the elements of the program sufficiently spaced out and paced so that people have time to assimilate the material?
  • How do people think about learning?

Brain overload is real

We’ve all heard course participants joke about “brain overload” at the end of a long day or after an intensive online program. It’s true. More training during this phase is actually counterproductive. There’s no point in trying to cram more information into the calendar – you’re wasting your resources.

Newly strengthened synapses are particularly vulnerable.

It has also been shown that when people have to process complex information, giving them time to think, even just a few minutes, makes their decisions much better.

Spacing learning

The importance of spacing – having some space between learning and reviewing sessions – might be a bit counterintuitive, but it’s one of the most important research findings nonetheless. People tend to believe that bundling learning into one intense session, as we probably all did before exams, is the best way to learn. This belief is so entrenched that even when people do better after spacing, they tend not to realize it.

One study found that 90% of participants performed better after spacing than cramming, but despite this, 72% of participants said they still thought cramming was more effective. [PDF]

Even when people do better after spacing, they tend not to realize it.

Here are some useful guidelines for spacing in different learning contexts:

Spacing within a single learning event

This can be achieved by asking participants to undertake a task unrelated to the content or, even better, to pause for reflection.

In experiments, this led to better recall of written passages than passages read all at once. These effects were also found to be long-lasting and persisted for at least a week.

The optimal spacing appears to be a function of how long the information is needed. A review of spacing research found that for a test undertaken seven days after the last study session, the best retention came from a one-day spacing gap; for a test 35 days later, the optimal spacing deviation was 11 days; for a test 70 days later, the optimal spacing deviation was 21 days. The authors suggested that 10-20% of the test delay would be optimal.

The art of revisiting

In a work environment, learning rarely happens with a single test date or formal verification of learned material in mind. Learning must be continuously recoverable, short and long term. Research indicates that reviewing 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. Reviewing the information only once and after a few days brought memory back to around 40% in a test a month and a half later. Reviewing the information three times and with a handful of days between each session, however, brought memory on this test up to around 55% – 60%.

Adding extra learning sessions helped, but not enough to justify the extra effort. This is the type of spacing that can be achieved in virtual programs or in a series of webinars or modules.

Spacing to include sleep

When incorporating spacing into a schedule, science suggests that an ideal interval is one that includes sleep.

12 hour spacing during the day (without sleep) is useful, but not as good as 12 hours during the night, and sleep is particularly relevant for more difficult content.

Sleep has been found to improve retention, insight, and making connections between new and old knowledge, and of course, it requires no additional cost, effort, or total time spent on learning sessions. Sleeping helps transform bits of information into long-term memories before they break down and also helps us ignore irrelevant information.

One way to incorporate this is to start a one-day workshop at lunchtime and end it at lunchtime the next day. The night part provides the sleep needed to make a connection and we see people returning to the program the next morning with many more ideas. It also helps to group content and give time for reflection – all the methods we know increase learning and memory.

How to manage the spacing?

In our own programs, we manage spacing using a variety of techniques that allow us to repeat learning without feeling like the same material is being reissued over and over again in the same context, for example by starting each module with a review of the learnings from the previous one and review the application of the ideas.

Repetition can also occur through facilitation techniques like priming. Priming allows the brain to integrate the new concept into a larger context, which increases the efficiency of learning.

The methods we use to do this include sharing how ideas have been applied and asking learners to contribute their own related material or share new material.

One important thing to remember about spacing…

Despite research into its benefits, people tend to believe that spacing is less important than other learning strategies. Although it outperformed methods such as mind maps by around 15%, study participants believed they learned more in the mind mapping exercise.

This article series contains many articles analyzing learning from a neuroscience perspective. You want to know more ? The full series of articles can be viewed here.

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