My college classes wanted papers, not exams

In college, I mostly took classes requiring me to write papers, rather than taking exams.Cartoon of a man backed up to a closet door, trying to keep it closed as all sorts of things fall out.

Which is why I never really “got” the cramming-for-exams thing.

Cramming: the act of stuffing things (people, objects) into a too-small container (a room, a box).

Or too much information all at once into your head.

As adults, we might still be cramming, although in a different way: by sitting through a day-long (or weeks- or even months-long!) workshop or training program.

And we’ve all had the experience of attending a program like that, or going to a really good conference and learning lots of interesting things we can’t wait to start using, but then …

… um. wait. … HOW does that work again?!

This is the result of learning too much too quickly all at once, or what research scientists call “massed instruction.”

The data support the experience.

I love it when studies support what I already intuitively – or practically – know.

In this case, research comparing massed instruction with small-bite-sized learning. The data prove that – yes – small bites spaced out over time, especially when combined with a community approach where students support each other, works significantly better than a longer one-off workshop.

There’s real proof backing this up (links are at the end if you want to read more):

Research in the field of experimental psychology has uncovered that teaching given in efficiently spaced interims (spaced circulation) results in preferred long-term maintenance over teaching given in one protracted, continuous session (massed dissemination). For example, students burning through 30 min taking in a rundown of words would have longer maintenance of the words if they partitioned that 30 min into three 10-min sessions spread out more than a few days or weeks, instead of investing the energy in one massed 30-min session. This marvel, known as the spacing impact, has been demonstrated in various learning regions and is viewed as one of the more legitimate outcomes in memory studies (Baddeley, 1997; Miles, 2014,).

This is dry stuff, I admit.

But there’s tremendous potential in understanding it and shifting our approach to training within our organizations.

As researchers at the Neuro Leadership Institute say in a recent article referenced by a Fast Company article:

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

And the 70-20-10 rule.

I’ve mentioned this before: it’s a model of learning that says only 10% of learning comes from formal instruction, 20% from observation, and 70% from doing.

Which is exactly what this “spaced learning” approach accomplishes.

And although leadership skills and what have traditionally been called “soft skills” weren’t explored separately in the studies I’ve seen, my professional experience in teaching these skills tells me that this is even more relevant for them.

It would be terrific if professional education shifted to a more spaced-learning approach, and yes, I’d love to see every one of you campaign for doing so within your companies!


The Fast Company article

The research paper from Sage Journals

The Neuro Leadership Institute article

And this is the approach I take in the Community of Practice, Learning, and Experience for managers. Check it out.

And yes, I do insist that “data” is plural, though I know that’s a fast-fading preference.