For learning to become a permanent memory, repetition is usually required. And while the concept of repetition sounds easy enough (how often have you heard "practice makes perfect"?) repetition is arguably the least understood learning principle.

Why Repetition is Not a Well-Understood Learning Principle

To begin with, if the design of each learning experience only impacts working memory, then repeating the same learning experience is unlikely to improve learning results.


Take spaced repetition for example. Spaced repetition is a popular learning technique that uses varying time intervals between reviewing previously learned material to aid memorization.

However, depending on how spaced repetition is deployed, it can often be a detached form of learning (just as passive as other traditional forms of learning). There must be a clear distinction between active recall (the goal of repetition) and simple recognition, because if you don't first have a memory of the basic knowledge and understanding of the teaching, no amount of repetition will help you retain that knowledge.

Therefore, if you genuinely do not remember an aspect of a teaching, (i.e. you didn’t form a permanent memory from the original teaching) you can't rely on repetition. Repetition should reinforce what you already know, not what you still have yet to learn.

Furthermore, spaced repetition, while useful for remembering simple facts and lists, to our knowledge, has yet to be studied for its usefulness regarding more complex, competency-based skills training (deep learning).

How to Make Repetition Work

The design challenge with repetition is that most learning experiences based on this concept don't engage the brain's entire natural learning cycle to create a permanent memory. This makes the efficacy of such approaches highly unreliable.

Ideally, repetition would cause the learner to go through the entire learning cycle, including additional cycles of both recall/reflection and testing as the reflection and testing of the same idea further strengthens our neural pathways.

Repetition is not just another part of the learning experience; it is also the result of the learning experience.

What to do next:

If you're looking to improve enterprise performance, you may recognize the inadequacies of traditional training methods (while at the same time, still using them).

But there are steps you can take to improve the way you deliver training and increase the likelihood that learners will remember and successfully apply new skills.

You can start by downloading sageCrowd's whitepaper The Brain's Natural Learning Cycles: Implications for Skill Development.

(Psst: If you're not a training professional and simply an individual looking to improve, all these steps apply to your own learning process, too!)



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