Cramming Doesn’t Work
We’ve all been there. A huge test tomorrow and we’ve spent the entire night cramming for the exam. We stuff as much information as we possibly can in our head and then march off to take test. And, if you are like most people, you ace the test, the information you crammed is right there and you are ready to answer all those multiple-choice questions.
But fast forward a couple days and a strange thing happens, you can’t remember anything you studied. In a few weeks, chances are you won’t remember any information that you crammed. It’s not just you, in fact, there is even a scientific name for it. It’s called the forgetting curve and researchers have known about it for almost hundred years.
The official, academic term for cramming is called “mass practice” and it’s not a good way to retain information over the long-term. It’s a horrible way to solidify information in your mind or to be able to recall key information after a training session. Instead, a much more robust technique exists and should be implemented if you want to retain information days, weeks or even years later.
The research is pretty clear that spacing out both practicing of content (reviewing, studying) and retrieval of content (quizzing, testing) are two of cognitive psychology’s most empirically validated concepts for increasing learning (Burns & Gurung, 2020). The two concepts are known in the academic literature as spaced practice and retrieval practice.
The concept of spaced practice which is sometimes referred to as distributed practice involves spreading studying of content over time, with optimal learning when studying is spaced rather than studied at once in a mass study event (Dunlosky et al., 2013).
Leveraging the work of Vlach, Sandhofer, and Bjork (2014) and a broad body of evidence based on research of Bahrick and Hall (2005), Maddox (2016), Karpicke and Bauernschimdt (2011) and Kerfoot et. al, (2009) spaced practice can help boost a learner’s recall of content. And the triggers for aiding the recall can be a variety of instructional content ranging from video-based instruction, game-based instruction or text-based information.
The second tenant, retrieval practice is built on the large body of literature surrounding the testing effect, where individuals show better retention for information when they have been tested on it (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Ariel & Karpicke, 2018; Agarwal, 2019; Burns & Gurung, 2020; Pan & Rickard, 2018;)
Combined these two concepts have a positive impact on retrieval and recall and, in some studies, an impact on behavior. Research published by Shaw et al. (2011) examining the impact of spaced practice and retrieval practice on clinical behavior resulted in self-reported behavior change. A study by Ramachandran et al (2013) looking at whether or not mobile phone messaging encouraging lifestyle change could reduce incident type 2 diabetes in Indian Asian men with impaired glucose tolerance found that sending behaviorally focused mobile phone messages reduced the cumulative incidence of type 2 diabetes which is a disease that can be controlled through changes in behavior.
Word of Caution
However, as with much academic research, when the concepts are applied in the field, the results can be mixed. In one case, two researchers Kauffeld and Lehmann-Willenbrock (2010) who were studying sales training at a bank found that spaced rather than massed practice resulted in greater transfer quality, higher self‐reports of sales competence, and improved key figures. But that spaced practice did not surpass massed practice in terms of transfer quantity. They were able to use massed practice to learn more than spaced but mass practice didn’t necessarily result in higher sale competence.
Also, recent work by Burns and Gurung (2020), indicate that the application of these concepts in field setting may be more difficult than anticipated. Burn and Gurung reported that their mixed results “highlight the challenges in applying cognitive theories to actual classrooms as well as some of the issues in studying long-term retention.”
So, you need to work carefully and use the right tools, just randomly breaking up content and delivering it over time is not the answer. You need to be more strategic and thoughtful.
One way we’ve found to help overcome field-based implementation challenges is to provide engaging, quick bursts of reinforcement at regular intervals and with tools specifically designed to help reinforce key knowledge. Allowing learners to recall and apply content can be powerful combination in making the learning work in the field.
One tool that we’ve used with success is a digital card game that is played for about 10 minutes before the weekly sales meeting or leadership meeting. The quick card game engages the participants right away, provides some friendly competition and even gets everyone energized for the meeting. All the while, the game is reinforcing critical leadership and sales information in a fun and engaging manner.
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