My Experience with Spaced Practice

First aid case with frog nurseAs someone who is responsible for the talent development of others in your organization, can you remember the last time you were the learner?  For the last two weeks, I’ve been taking care of a close family member who has just had a complicated surgery.  She needed 24/7 care.  Trust me when I say that my skillset is not in nursing care. But, with the help of some part time nursing care teaching me what to do, I’ve learned a great deal through practice and feedback.

Throughout my experience, I could see the potential for mastering complex skills and processes if we added practice to our training programs.  There is no way to learn how to care for a surgical incision other than doing the work.  The same can be said of the complex technical steps our workers perform to produce their work product.

In my first lesson, the nurse set the context for me.  She didn’t over explain.  She was concise in her instruction.  She made me observe her processes and asked me questions along the way to assess my understanding of what I was seeing.  It wasn’t a long lesson.  Maybe 15 minutes to observe how to clean the incision and how to properly get someone else in and out of bed.  We need to learn how to get to the point and convey the most important bits of information rather than our usual fire hose of information approach. We must trust that our workers will learn to come back for more information as they need it as we adjust our approach.

The next day, the nurse made me complete the process. She stood close by and talked me through the steps.  She allowed me to ask questions and she gently guided me when I needed it. It was her confidence in knowing the process and her willingness to be beside me when I was first trying the process that gave me reassurance. In many of our organizations we can’t always be deskside.  But can we offer more process support through our first line of support? Or through modern communication tools like Skype chat or video face-time?

On the third day, she asked me to perform the process and explain to her the steps as I was doing them.  She wanted me to be sure I really understood the process and the reasons behind the process.  It is important that we allow the worker to demonstrate what they know. Assessment is often seen as a negative in many organizations, but it doesn’t have to be the big bad comprehensive test that most of us think about.  Assessment with feedback can come through these kinds of small encounters that happen in the context of the work where the feedback is most meaningful.

On day four, I didn’t have the nurse by my side.  I had to complete the process on my own. I did fine.  Slow, but confident in the workflow.  On day five, the nurse was back to take over. From that point forward we would share the duty.  On my off days, I would still observe, learn and gain confidence in my own abilities.  Each time I completed the process, it got easier.  The only thing I thought that would have made the experience better would have been resource that I could refer to if I needed the extra boost of support.

As I reflect, it was the spacing of the practice that made the difference in how quickly I could learn how to do something completely new to me.  I had each night to reflect and prepare for the next day’s exercise. Just as importantly, I had access to a subject matter expert to ask questions and to provide feedback to correct my understanding. She observed and assessed my skills.  And just as critically important, she provided encouragement.

Spaced practice is a powerful method for building knowledge and skills.  Studies show that to truly learn and change behavior, the worker must be active in the learning process. When spaced practice and supportive content is added to talent development efforts more information is retained.  I know this to be true based on my own experience.

What lessons can you learn from your own “learning” experiences to take forward with you as you develop the people in your organization?


About the author: Tami Schiller