Learning and Retaining Skills
How old were you when you learned to ride a bike? Four, five, six, or seven-years-old? I think I was five or six when my older brother and sisters began working with me day after day after day.
The process was simple: I’d get on the bike, and they’d run along beside me while holding the back of my seat. I’d scream from fear as I did my best to fall onto the soft grass rather than on the sidewalk. I’d get up, and we’d start the process all over again the next day.
It took a while for me to be confident on those two wheels, but I didn’t give up. Neither did my siblings. That summer was filled with attempts, falls, and short stints of success until, by the end of summer, I was riding along with the big kids, my older siblings and neighborhood friends.
What fascinates me is that I never once thought about giving up on learning to ride that bike. I didn’t throw in the towel when I realized it wasn’t easy, and I didn’t resort to negative self-talk. Instead, I was inspired by the words of those older siblings who were cheering me on. They’d yell, “You can do it,” and I’d yell right back, “Of course I can!”
Learning My Own Lessons
Fast forward a few decades. Throw in some difficult challenges. Add a pinch of that negative self-talk I didn’t even dream of back in my bike riding days, and think about the difficulty involved in developing a new skill or habit. I’ve been there, and I’m sure you have too.
It’s hard to grow and develop as an adult when there are so many other things happening in our lives. It’s hard to not walk away from something when you don’t get it right on the first—or second, or third—try. But not quite getting it, or even outright failing, is part of the learning process.
In 2013, I began working as a corporate trainer. For me, this meant traveling all over the country providing one- and two-day soft skills training sessions for organizations. I shared best practices with employees in the legal, insurance, education, financial, medical, banking, government, service, and manufacturing industries. We discussed conflict resolution, tactful communication, customer service, time and priority management, leadership development, and effective teamwork.
And if my goal was to inspire those people I had the privilege of spending my days with, I do believe I was successful. If, however, my goal was positive, lasting change, then I’m less confident in those results. Science shows no matter how good I was at motivating my audiences, there likely was not any lasting change as a result of those sessions because that’s not how the process of retaining learned skills works.
James Clear makes the process of learning clear in his article, “The 3 R’s of Habit Change: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick.” In the article, Clear shares that all habits follow a three-step process which allows them to promote the positive, lasting change we should be striving to attain. Habits need:
- A reminder or trigger to initiate the behavior;
- A routine of the actual action taken or behavior itself;
- And a reward or benefit gained from doing the behavior.
So, what do the three steps of habit change have to do with the corporate training results for the participants in my training groups?
Corporate Training Results
To fully incorporate a new habit, we need to practice that new action over and over again. It’s the Routine step in James Clear’s model. It’s also like learning to ride a bike, right?
When I realized the one- and two-day sessions weren’t getting the results that were so important for people to get, I began researching spaced repetition and how it is connected to positive, lasting change. I learned that the brain stores information it considers to be important. But how do we let the brain know what information is important?
Through spaced repetition.
As James Gupta writes in his article about spaced repetition, spaced repetition works because it works with the way the brain already functions. The brain takes concepts it encounters regularly and frequently and combines and strengthens those lessons learned from similar concepts. If we continue to encounter the same information again and again, we’re telling our brain that this information is important. And by spacing out the instances in which we encounter the same information, we exercise the neural connections the brain has developed concerning this information, and long-term, durable retention of knowledge is the result.
The idea of learning through spaced repetition was exciting for me to learn. I realized I actually could share best practices with people so they can achieve positive, lasting change. I just needed to organize it in a slightly different way. My one- and two-day soft skills training sessions are, for the most part, a thing of the past, and my business now is centered around a layered approach for positive, lasting change.
My clients all have one thing in common: They want to improve the results of their internal customers—or staff—in order to improve their results with external customers. They want engaged employees who are empowered and effective in their roles. They want team members who understand how to conduct crucial conversations, prioritize their responsibilities, and hold themselves accountable for their own results.
Through the use of my layered approach, those team members get spaced repetition to help them implement these new habits. The layered
learning approach has a process, just like learning to ride a bike had a process for me:
- We begin with a kickoff training session.
- Then we go to behavioral inventories to focus on each employee’s greatest strengths.
- After that is individual coaching sessions, small group coaching sessions, and additional group training sessions.
Each week, I share the information with them in different ways throughout the agreed-upon training period. The result is that team members essentially make use of the spaced repetition to create positive, lasting change in their professional and personal lives. They learn to take what they already know about communication and leadership, make a few tweaks to improve it, and get far better results.
Or we could say, they hop on their bikes and happily ride off with that feeling of success that comes when we stay focused on our goals.