One Simple Tweak That Can Make Learning Seven Times More Impactful


What if we told you that one simple tweak to your learning programs could increase their impact by seven hundred percent? And that tweak had negligible effect on cost, and could be done quickly and easily?

You probably wouldn’t believe us, but it’s true. By understanding and employing the science of spacing—the introduction of concepts at a steady rate with time for practice in between—we can make a dramatic difference in the impact of learning.

At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we’ve always known that spacing is important to learning. But until recently, we didn’t realize just how important—then we did the math.

Cramming for the exam

Many of us—whether we’d like to admit it or not—have spent the wee hours of the night cramming for a big test. Energy drinks litter our desks, sleep beckons like a siren, but an impending exam urges us onward.

While those cramming sessions may have helped us pass the test, science shows they don’t help us actually absorb the material for anything except the short term. It’s what scientists call massed learning; we’re able to retain large amounts of information for a short period of time with limited recall.

Massed learning works well if you need to pass an exam tomorrow morning, but in the organizational context, learners are expected to not only remember the learning the next morning, but to consistently act upon it for years to come. Put simply, cramming doesn’t work.

Instead, we should employ massing’s opposite number: spacing. Science and experience tell us that learning is most effective when it’s spaced out over time. Accordingly, when designing learning programs, we should consider this fundamental tenet: space it out.

Learning through AGES

First, let’s ground ourselves in the science. NLI’s AGES Model is the result of years of research into the science of learning. AGES stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion, and Spacing. It describes a learning style where people can focus on and engage with the content, experience positive emotions around it, and take breaks between lessons. When each component of AGES is optimized, we set the conditions for strong insights and better learning outcomes.

Spacing, we’ve learned, is incredibly important and powerful. To demonstrate, let’s unpack two approaches to designing a learning program: one using the conventional method of cramming, and one leveraging the science of spacing.

The conventional approach

Let’s say you’ve built three hours of content designed to help your managers have more productive feedback conversations, and you need to deploy this content to 1,000 employees across the organization. In a traditional environment, you may think of booking conference rooms for a three-hour workshop. Or today, scheduling a three-hour zoom session that you run many times.

While you may rightfully expect all learners to attend the entire training, you’d probably experience a severe decline in attention. That is, your managers would be in the room physically, but perhaps not mentally. Optimistically, you can estimate that on average, attendees will be paying attention 75% of the time throughout the session. This is even worse when online.

For any given learning session, we recommend giving people two to three “calls to action”—opportunities to build their knowledge and practice the desired new habits—and we’d expect 25% of learners who’ve completed the session to also complete these calls to action.

What you’d see then is about 188 actions taken as a result of this one, three-hour session. In other words, about one tenth of your managers are actually having better feedback conversations.

The brain-friendly approach

Let’s imagine that instead you’d taken the same three hours of content and spread it out over three 60-minute cohort-based sessions, each spaced one week apart.

This format would likely result in slightly fewer learners completing the full training due to drop-outs, schedule conflicts, etc. (let’s say 65%), but those learners would likely have much higher levels of attention.

Since the three-session format gives you more opportunities for calls to action and creates accountability for completing those actions with upcoming second and third sessions, we’d expect to see about 75% of learners taking action after each session. So, while you might experience a slight drop off in completion, you’d likely see a huge payoff in attention, and actions taken.

By leveraging a cohort-based spaced learning model, you’d see closer to 1,462 actions taken as a result of the training. That’s seven times more actions than with the same content deployed in one three-hour session.

Imagine the impact of 1,462 better feedback conversations—namely, a more engaged, productive, and content workforce. That’s the power of spaced learning, and it can be applied to any learning content, from bias mitigation to intentional inclusion.

This kind of approach isn’t complex to execute – it just involves breaking apart a workshop ito natural chunks, which the brain prefers anyway – and giving people time to digest and apply each chunk before going to the next one.

In short, one simple tweak, and you can get seven times the impact from a learning experience. It all comes down to following the science.

Authors: Cliff David , Katherine Milan

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