Digital Transformation and Continuous Learning

Mark McDaniel and Henry Roediger, III
February 9, 2018

A challenge for many companies is training employees in the company-specific knowledge and skills that they need to perform their jobs.  For instance, sales forces need to be up-to-date on the companies’ products and services, and employees need to be aware of compliance policies that exist for their particular industry.  Similarly, many organizations require that their employees complete certification courses, so that they are competent enough to deliver the target services.  Furthermore, in changing business environments and with changing regulations, there is often the need for “booster” training. These various training needs are frequently met by having employees complete intense short-courses.  The reasonable assumption might be that after completing these training sessions, employees are up to speed, fully knowledgeable, and ready to show outstanding job performance.  Unfortunately, evidence from the science of learning suggests that this assumption is on very shaky grounds. The problem is that it is very likely that trainees are retaining little of what was taught during training.  Let’s first examine how insidious forgetting is and then talk about straightforward ways to augment training so that forgetting is minimized. 

Forgetting Is Rapid 

Consider the results of an experiment conducted in the memory and learning laboratory at Washington University (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Students studied short passages about science topics (such as the sun or sea otters) for 10 minutes. After 5 minutes some of the students were asked to recall as much as they could from the passage, and recall was relatively good—over 80% of the material was recalled. It is evident that immediately after studying, the students knew a great deal about the content of the passages. Yet, students who tried to recall after 2 days had forgotten almost half of that information, and students who tried to recall after a week had forgotten almost 60% of the studied information! Many scientific studies have shown that this rate of forgetting is not unusual, and it is alarming if businesses and organizations are counting on employees to retain the critical knowledge that is the target of training efforts. 

An example of the somewhat disappointing outcomes from intensive training efforts comes from our experience with a 5-day summer institute for high-school biology teachers. This institute was designed to help the teachers provide more comprehensive and accurate instruction to their high-school students.  At this institute, teachers were given lectures on advanced topics such as the “Principles of neuroscience” and an associated lab exercise to illustrate possible activities for students. The catch is that some of these topics were not included in the high school curriculum until some months after the summer institute. Teachers reported that by then they had forgotten the nuanced details from the institute that they needed to enrich their standard lessons. Consequently, some biology lessons remained as they were before the teachers attended the institute, even though teachers could be credentialed by attending the institute. 

In the health-care field, didactic conferences are mandated for resident training curricula (Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, 2007). Sadly, studies have documented that residents who attend didactic conferences perform no better on long-term assessment measures than residents who do not attend (Fitzgerald & Wenger, 2003; Picciano et al., 2003). Again, because of substantial forgetting, the training did not meet its objective. We suspect that the above scenarios are not isolated ones.  

Continuous Learning With Retrieval Practice

Let’s return to the experiment with the college students studying short scientific passages. In conditions not yet mentioned, half of the study time for some of the students was replaced by a retrieval exercise.  In this condition, students tried to recall (retrieve) as much of the information they had read as possible. For these students, forgetting was substantially reduced. The upshot was that after one week, these students remembered 50% more than the students who had studied for twice the amount of time.  The benefit of retrieval was even more exaggerated when the students repeatedly tried to retrieve what they had read (Roediger & Karpicke, Experiment 2). 

Based on these scientific results and many more like them, the Holy Grail for retaining information—that is for preventing forgetting after training—is retrieval practice, retrieval practice, retrieval practice.  Retrieval practice is essentially being tested on the target information.  Therefore, our recommendation to promote strong retention of the contents of your training programs is: to have a continuous way of testing people over time to ensure retention. Incorporating cadenced testing into training procedures will help deliver an effective learning and training experience. Our recommendation is based in part on our experience (and the experience of others) in educational settings.  One of our experimental projects has been examining the benefits of quizzing (testing) middle-school students for their social studies and science course exams. A key feature of our quizzing protocol is that students are given several multiple-choice quizzes (with feedback) on target content from their lessons prior to their exams. In some cases, quizzes are given immediately after a lecture and then repeated a day prior to the exam.  Several informative results have emerged from this project.  First, quizzing produced significant gains in exam performance (comparing exam performance on quizzed versus non-quizzed content) for a range of topics in social studies and science (McDaniel, Agarwal, Huelser, McDermott, & Roediger, 2011; Roediger, Agarwal, McDaniel, & McDermott, 2012).  Importantly, these gains were long-term as they persisted through end-of-semester and end-of-year cumulative exams.  Other studies have shown similar benefits of retrieval practice (testing) in college courses (Lyle & Crawford, 2011).  

Perhaps most convincingly for business applications, retrieval practice has also been shown to promote retention of the trained content in situations introduced at the outset. For instance, a recent experiment examined the value of repeated testing (retrieval practice) for promoting long-term retention (about 6 months) of medical information presented at a didactic conference for pediatric and emergency medicine residents (Larsen, Butler, & Roediger, 2009). Immediately following a 1-hour teaching conference covering two pediatric neurological emergencies that could be encountered, residents took a test (with feedback) on the neurological emergency. The same review test was then presented twice more at 2-week intervals. The long-term retention (6 to 7 months later) of the information presented at the didactic conference was significantly and consistently better after this repeated testing procedure than after a repeated study condition.  Indeed, final performance after repeated testing nearly doubled that achieved after repeated study. Thus, testing boosted long-term retention of critical medical information. 

In sum, multiple tests (retrieval practice) cadenced after training are an effective way to make training stick:  

1. Testing promotes long-term retention of knowledge. 

2. Testing supports flexible use of trained knowledge so that the knowledge can be applied to new contexts on the job. 

3. Testing modifies learning so that the knowledge is more organized and integrated into a coherent mental model, thereby facilitating problem-solving and transfer. 

The appeal of cadenced testing after training is that it works for the broad array of training that your company may require. It works for your macro-learning challenges (e.g., training a new sales methodology) as well as your micro-learning challenges (e.g., training targeted modifications to compliance protocols).  

An accessible source for further guidelines on how to make training stick is Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). 

To help your organization with the digital transformation of continuous learning using the testing effect and retrieval practice to make training stick, please contact our friends at Trivie. They can be reached at www.trivie.com or makeitstick@trivie.com.


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