The Best Way To Learn Is Hardly Ever Taught

By on April 4, 2017

The learning technique that science has proven to be the most effective is the one used the least.

Spreading out learning over time is one of the most effective strategies. The technique is called “Distributed Practice,” meaning learning is broken up into short sessions.

In my own practice as a communications consultant, I offer multiple short sessions, and try not to get talked into one-or-two-day workshops.

People learn better in short sessions spread over a long period of time.The reverse — cramming learning into a short space of time — doesn’t work that well.

In adult learning and training programs, such as the workshops and seminars that many corporations provide for their employees, information is often crammed into one-or-two-day programs.

According to Huthwaite, a leading training company, 30 days after a one or two-day training event, participants lose, on average, 87% of the skills they were meant to acquire.

But with follow-up coaching, participants can retain more of the learning.

The frightening thing is that we have known about the power of distributed practice for over a hundred years, and yet people continue to study by cramming, and businesses continue to run short-term training sessions in which adult learners lose, within 30 days, 87% of the skills they were meant to acquire.

According to Pearson, the United States has a “cognitive skills and educational attainment” score of 0.39, which puts the United States fourteenth out of forty countries ranked in that category.

The top ten countries (and their scores) are:

  1. South Korea (1.30)
  2. Japan (1.03)
  3. Singapore (0.99)
  4. Hong Kong (0.96)
  5. Finland (0.92)
  6. United Kingdom (0.67)
  7. Canada (0.60)
  8. Netherlands (0.58)
  9. Ireland (0.51)
  10. Poland (0.50)

So much for Polish jokes.

“My mind is like a piece of steel,” said President Lincoln, “Very hard to scratch anything on it.” But then he also said, “It’s almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.”

Getting it there takes time. We need Distributed Practice to scratch new knowledge, skills, and behaviors into our steely brains, and keep it there.

Our jobs, our companies, the economy of our country, our own futures, and the future of our democracy depend on an informed, educated population.

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