Building Bridges

Growing Your Knowledge Garden

Back in the spring, you buried your seeds in the soil. With the spring rain falling and the sunshine warming the earth, small seedlings began to poke their heads out of the ground. You intend to care for these small plants so they will flourish. But what would happen if you planted the seeds and watered them once, then simply left them alone?

If you’ve ever planted anything, you know the answer. In the absence of water, sunshine, and weeding, the plant won’t grow. Or, if one month happens to be excessively rainy, the plant may spiral out of control, taking over everything in its path and dominating your garden.

So, how can you avoid these two scenarios? You cultivate the plant — you water it, fertilize it, stake it for support if needed, and trim off dying leaves so the healthy part will sprout. For best results, you’ll check on your plant a couple of times each week, watering it and seeing if anything else can be done to best support its growth. You might even say encouraging words to your plant (while no one is looking.)

The same phenomenon exists in the training world. Too often, we “plant” a training program, then expect the learners to “grow;” that is, retain and act on all they’ve learned. We expect learners to apply their new knowledge effectively in their jobs day-to-day.

Unfortunately, this belief isn’t supported by studies from brain science, which have shown memory slippage following single training sessions. How quickly do we really forget what we learn?

You may have heard of Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist. Back in 1885, he conducted experiments in which he attempted to memorize random combinations of three-letter syllables. Ebbinghaus’s testing showed that right after a learning session, recall of the letter combinations was 100 percent. However, memory loss increased sharply over the next few days and finally leveled out 30 days after the learning experience. This discovery by Ebbinghaus became known as the forgetting curve.

Thus, instructional designers must actively work to combat this memory loss. Luckily for us, Ebbinghaus stepped up to offer a strategy known as the spacing effect. Just as with plants, we need to space out the “watering” (instruction).

Ebbinghaus wrote, “It makes the assumption probable that with any considerable number of repetitions a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.” (Ebbinghaus, Hermann. Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. University of Berlin 1885, English translation Martino Publishing 2011.) What does that mean? “If we space learning over a span of time, with spaces in between, the learner has time to process and internalize the information and is more likely to remember it over the long term,” according to a article (Meacham, Margie. “Don’t Forget the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.” Insights, 17 January 2016. Accessed 12 August 2019.)

In what other ways can we “cultivate” knowledge to interrupt the forgetting curve? Here are a few ideas:

Problem-solving activities. Encouraging learners to brainstorm solutions to a problem is one way to cement learning by contextualizing it. In a recent project completed by EnVision for manufacturing operations leaders, learners took a specific manufacturing practice and considered the question, “how can I mistake-proof it?” This enabled them to directly apply what they just learned in a creative way.

Push reminders. Text, images, audio, video or a combination can be sent to learners in a planned approach, providing reminders to learners who are working on their knowledge accumulation and retention. This spacing effect approach has the additional advantage of enabling learners to “remember” or to build on their knowledge whether they are at their desks or on the go.

Management support. By checking in periodically and providing ongoing feedback, managers discuss the new material with their employees. The managers’ involvement guides employees in using their knowledge appropriately and effectively. Think about those “nurturing words” we give to growing plants. As instructional designers, we can provide guidance to the managers to best support their employees.

So, when you plant your seeds, don’t leave them to the elements and expect that they will grow robustly and healthfully; cultivate them. Do the same with your learners as you plan your learning programs, and throughout the season, you’ll find that your learners continue to bloom and grow.