If you have ever pulled an all-nighter to cram for a big test or taken a day-long training, only to never revisit that content again, you have experienced concentrated practice. The problem with this method is that there is not enough time for your brain to transfer learning from short-term to long-term memory. Instead, neuroscience researchers have found that in order to form lasting memories, learners must repeat practice or study over extended periods of time in what’s called distributed practice.
Small chunks of learning, spaced out over time, reinforce memory networks as learners retrieve the material over and over again. Their brains begin to create stronger neural pathways that are easier to access, while implanting that information into long-term memory. This technique is especially important for learning a complex skill or information, as long as the focus is on the same skill throughout the process.
Distributed practice became more important when organizations shifted to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As an alternative to full-day, in-person training programs, organizations can use 30-minute weekly or bi-weekly virtual workshops, spread out of the course of a few weeks. Using distributed practice, these workshops can layer together complex skills and information over time. This approach can improve retention while eliminating the need to spend long days in the classroom.
Another fun way to use distributed practice is through the use of polls or quizzes at the start of a meeting to help learners recall information that they learned in a previous training session. Most webinar software allows the use of polls or quizzes, and they increase both engagement and retention. It is the continuous recall of information that helps create the neural pathways in the brain and moves knowledge or skills to long-term memory.
If a traditional curriculum is part of the instructional strategy, one way to integrate distributed practice is to spend 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of every lesson reviewing the previous lesson. It is also beneficial to use this premise throughout the course of a lesson by asking learners frequently to recall what they learned earlier or by layering information. This can happen virtually throughout an eLearning course or during a live online workshop or webinar. Any technique that allows for spaced learning moments, which learners then use to recall the same or similar information over time, will help move knowledge and skills into long-term memory.
Distributed practice is one of many learning strategies that are backed by neuroscience; however, it is also one the easiest to apply, with great results for learning retention. When used properly, it enables learners to transfer their new knowledge and skills to long-term memory and easily recall them time and time again. As time goes on, more of the tried and true methods of tenured educators and instructional designers will become backed by neuroscience research, bridging the gap between science and real-life application.