Evidence-Based Training Methods and Spaced Learning (An Interview with Dr. Will Thalheimer)

In this article, we’re going to continue our ongoing series of interviews with Dr. Will Thalheimer, and we’ll be getting some tips for using spaced learning to better support learner memory in workforce learning & development efforts. For those of you keeping track at home, you may know that in an earlier article, Dr. Thalheimer gave us some best practices for writing level 1 “smile sheets,” and we’ll continue the focus on evidence-based training methods in this interview with the good doctor.

For those who aren’t familiar with spaced learning, which is also known as spaced practice, the idea is to have the learner re-engage with the learner material at different moments over time. There’s a lot of evidence that shows this really reduces the human tendency to forget job training very quickly, meaning workers will be more likely to remember the training and later apply it on the job to create the desired behavior the training was intended to create.

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Will Thalheimer, he’s a well-known and very credible research- and evidence-based learning professional who runs the Will at Work blog and generally shares useful information for learning professionals. Many, many thanks to Dr. Thalheimer for participating in this interview, the earlier interview, on smile sheets, and two more to be published soon.

What Is Spaced Learning & Why Does It Help Job Training?

Convergence Training: What is spaced learning, what problem is it intended to solve, and why is it helpful?

Dr. Thalheimer: Spaced learning, sometimes called the spaced practice effect or the distributed practice effect, is the finding in the research that if you repeat something over time versus repeating it immediately, that people remember a lot more. And if you repeat something after a longer interval instead of after a shorter interval, people remember a lot more.

And this goes back to the distinction between understanding and remembering–there are only a few things we can do to support remembering. There are a lot of things we can do to support understanding, but there are a few things we can do REALLY WELL to support long-term remembering.

One is giving people realistic practice, and decision-making practice, and the other thing is spacing repetitions over time.

One distinction that is important is this is not just spacing learning over time. That’s not the effect.It’s spacing repetitions over time.

Back in 1992, these researchers Bruce and Bayrick (check spelling here) counted up all the articles that had been written on spaced learning at the time, and there were more than 300 then, and every year there are at least 10 more. It is one of the most fascinating things for researchers in this field: why would it be that if we just space a repetition over time, that people remember a lot more? And there are a lot of different theories and hypotheses about that, and most of us don’t really care about that, but what we should know is that if we space repetitions over time, we’re going to support our learners in remembering.

And maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but maybe it should be said: that’s one of the things we should be doing as learning professionals. If learners understand it, but they don’t remember it, we have not done our job.

Convergence Training: I think that distinction between learning and remembering IS worth calling out, and noting that they’re both the job of a learning professional. I think sometimes people walk into a room and think to themselves “my job is to make sure people get it today” and they forget about scaffolding and supporting memory.

Dr. Thalheimer: Absolutely, absolutely.

How Much “Space” Should You Put in Spaced Learning?

Convergence Training: You made a distinction between learning and repetition. Could you explain what you mean by those two terms? Are there guidelines for the amount of time to place in the “space” between repetitions? You mentioned that longer is better, but are there any guidelines for that?

Dr. Thalheimer: So, learning is too fuzzy a word. I shouldn’t use that word when we try to be precise.

A repetition basically means that you are repeating in some way some concept or idea that you introduced before. And you can repeat it more than once, obviously. One of the connotations of a repetition is a verbatim repetition, where you repeat it word-for-word, but that’s not what I’m getting at.

A repetition could be….you might want to get to the same learning point, but you might not want to get to it in the same way. In fact, we know if you present learning points in the same way, people habituate to it, they get bored, they don’t want it. So we need to vary things. So we can space things out by presenting something in a PowerPoint or a lecture, and you get them to discuss it, and that’s repeating it, you’re getting them to talk about it. Or you ask a question about it. Or you have them act it out. Or you have them simulate it. Or you have them practice it in some way. Or you present it in one way and then you present it in video or animation, and all of these things are repetitions.

Convergence Training: Great. Any guidelines on the amount of space?

Dr. Thalheimer: Sure. In general, longer is better. Sometimes that’s not practical.

I used to make the recommendation that if you want people to remember for a month, you might want to space it out for a month. Other people have found, and it depends on the type of content you’re working with, but they’ve found that you might to space things out–if you want them to remember for a certain amoutn of time after learning, then during the learning you might want them to space it out over 20-30% of that time frame.

In general, longer is better. So, two days is better than one day; two hours is better than one hour; twenty minutes is better than ten minutes.

But they have found that spacing things over a 24-hour period can be particularly effective. It looks like the brain is compiling information as we sleep. In fact, some studies have shown that if you do learning repetitions right before sleep and then in the morning, you’ll do better than you would in other times. Now that’s probably not practical, we don’t have that much control, and it might be illegal in some cases to make our learners practice before bedtime, but that 24-hour period tends to be pretty powerful.

Spaced Learning and Pre-Training

Convergence Training: How can pre-training be used in a spaced learning campaign? Any suggestions for that?

Dr. Thalheimer: Yeah. So there are many ways to think about the spacing effect.

One way is to think that we have a main body of content, and we add things before it, like pre-training, and things after it. Another way is to think of presenting training and then we wait, or we present some content and we wait, and then we present it again. Or, we can do interleaving, where we cover other topics and then we come back, so we cover topic A, then topic B, then we come back to topic A, and then we do B and C and D and then we come back to A, so there are many ways to think of that.

Pre-training offers one potential to space things. HOWEVER, when we look at learning research, we have to be practical. In many cases, learners will not engage with pre-training. Or some will engage in pre-training and others won’t, and so when they come to the classroom, you’ve got this dichotomy, and the people who have done the work are annoyed because you’re going over what they learned and what they spent so much time on, and they’re mad at the people who didn’t do it. Yeah, it just gets to be a mess.

So, if you can do it, if you can get people engaged, yeah.

There tends to be that human element, you know, to think beyond the typical paradigm. In other words, the typical paradigm is we have a learning event, and we might add things before and after it. But maybe our learning event should be more of a series of events. I talk about subscription learning–short nuggets of learning or engagement spread out over time. This gives us a lot of opportunities, if, again, it is practical and we can actually get learners to engage in that kind of process.

Spaced Learning During the Primary or Sole Learning Event

Convergence Training: I think when people think of spaced learning, they think of the original or primary learning event and then training after. For example, I work with a lot of manufacturers and with manufacturing safety training, and often they think of the original learning event and then refresher training. But you’ve clearly also been talking about spaced practice within the original or primary learning event.

How can spaced learning and/or repetition be used within a single learning experience?

Dr. Thalheimer: Yep, you can think about it both ways, absolutely.

And with safety training, I’ve been called in to work on safety training, and some people don’t even think about those refreshers. I was at a manufacturing plant, and safety is supposed to be very important, and you don’t want to just think about the training, you want to think about what the supervisors are doing, so I sat and watched supervisors in their pre-shift meetings, and they would say things like “OK, everybody, remember, ten fingers and ten toes!” And that was their reminder to stay safe. That is completely useless, right? It is not really triggering things. It looks like a repetition, but it’s a useless repetition, because people get habituated to it. It is not adding more information, it not reminding them “OK, if you see a piece of meat on the ground, don’t just let it sit there,” or “If there’s some noise coming from the machine, don’t let it go,” you know. You have to get very specific, very situation-based, and managers can be part of that, IF they know what to do.

Spaced Learning After the Primary or Initial Learning Event

Convergence Training: How can spaced learning be best used after a learning experience? One of the things that a lot of companies that do refresher training, maybe because OSHA requires it, is they do it once a year. So is there a point where the longer-is-better rule for spaced practice maybe gets stretched to absurdity?

Dr. Thalheimer: We’re conflating a couple of things here. Longer is better to help you remember. But also, the shorter the time between learning and performance, the less forgetting there is going to be. So if you had a graph that showed the learning curve and forgetting curves, if you teach someone in January, and by the end of January and February, the learning curve is very high, it’s highly accessible in memory, and you’re more likely to remember it, but as the year goes by, you’re more likely to forget it and slip down the forgetting curve.

And with a lot of these things, it’s not just remembering, it’s also motivation. And the motivation can wane as well.

So when you think of spacing, your thinking of spacing to support long-term remembering, but we also need to think about accessibility for memory, and if you want people to remember, you want it to be as short as possible between the learning and the remembering situation.

Final Thoughts on Space Learning

Convergence Training: Any other things we should know about spaced learning?

Dr. Thalheimer: Well, I think that subscription-based learning idea is really important.

And within that context, a lot of people are talking about microlearning these days. Because that word is so popular, I’ve started to use the concept of threaded microlearning, to mean intentionally scheduling learning repetitions over time. Because a lot of people just think of microlearning for performance support, right–“I’ve got a problem in Excel, I’m going to go watch a little video and I’m going to know what to do.” Well, that’s one way of thinking about microlearning, but you can also think about microlearning as a subscription of short nuggets or interactions.

Conclusion: Thanks to Dr. Will Thalheimer for Explaining Best Practices for Use of Spaced Learning with Us

A million thanks to Dr. Thalheimer for sharing his expertise on spaced learning.

Don’t forget to read his excellent white paper on spacing learning over time–it’s got a lot more great information on the spacing topic.

You might also want to check out these articles on the forgetting curve and spaced practice.

Finally, a couple of quick thoughts of how to automate some of spaced learning ideas you just read about, and in particular the subscription learning model Dr. Thalheimer mentioned.

As you no doubt remember, a lot of these spacing will occur during the primary learning event, so that’s something you can address in the training sessions you lead. But in addition, you’ll want to create further repetitions after the original learning event–Dr. Thaleimer mentioned the importance of a 24-hour period for this, but also of spreading that learning out over a longer intervals. You can use a learning management system (LMS) to deliver those post-training repetitions to workers (at least some of them), and those can be in a variety of forms, including the microlearning nuggets Dr. Thalheimer mentioned–and those microlearning courses may be especially well suited for delivery to learners on their mobile devices for quick, easy, and convenient access and completion.


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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

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