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Space (and Time): The Final Frontier of Learning

One of the best analogies on learning that I ever learned came in a rather unlikely place.

I had just walked from my car to meet a golf instructor (John), he was going to help me work through some issues with my game. 15 minutes into the lessons John could tell that I was getting frustrated with my new backswing and he asked me to join him on a quick walk. I put down my clubs and we began walking back towards my car. About half-way there John stopped me – the scene was not much different than the picture to the right – we were standing in the woods on a path that had been worn by years and years of golfers walking back-and-forth from the parking lot to the driving range.

John said, “Imagine for a second what this path looked like the first day a golfer found this short cut to the range… now compare that to today…” [Perhaps you can picture it?]

John continued, “This time, imagine what it would have looked like had no one ever repeated the trek…or if it was only traveled once a year?”

That 5-minutes spent on the walking path through the woods has stuck with me for years. And for years I have used the imagery of the worn path to help others understand why learning is rarely, if ever, immediate – instead, it is the end-product of spacing, time, and retrieval.

The first time a learner is confronted with new information, it is like the first walker through the woods…some grass and twigs get trampled, but in a matter of days the grass is likely to regrow and there will be no visible path. If the walker returns the next day, the next week, the next month….over time, the path is worn in and becomes permanent. 

Neurobiologically, the first time new information is consumed it is like the first walk through the woods – and neural networks are weakly formed. If the new information is not revisited, the networks weaken and a learner’s ability to retrieve the information (to follow the path) is lost. However, if the learner is re-exposed to the information, if they revisit their notes, if they are presented with reminders or educational boosters; one-off learning experiences become worn neural networks, and strong, efficient retrieval is made possible (AKA, true learning; retention).

At the heart of the Learning Actions Model is the recognition that learning is often inefficient and unsuccessful if the learner does not take the right actions (learning actions) at the right time. And one of the most critical learning actions is setting reminders that ensure a learner will be re-exposed to new content/information over time; with each subsequent experience or new exposure, the neural networks strengthen and worn path is formed.

In practice we find that learners often need even more support. While we can drive learners to take actions, we can do even more to catalyze learning – we can (and should) structure and optimize the spacing and timing of continuous learning. This recognition, married to the emerging science of microlearning, lead to the design, creation, and recent release of ArcheMedX Rich Content Posts (or RCPs) – short, concise, and intentional interventions published and disseminated to learners over time to reinforce, enhance, and extend learning and retention.

Beginning this month our partners leveraging the ArcheHome and ArcheTeam curricular experiences can now augment their interventions with an unlimited number of RCPs thereby creating planned or ad hoc continuous learning experiences for their learners and/or teams.

If you are interested in learning more about the science of spacing and retrieval, let me know!

If you are interested in learning more about how your organization can leverage ArcheHome, ArcheTeam, and RCPs, contact [email protected]!

If you are interested in fixing your golf game, maybe we can meet up on that worn path and spend some time with John 😉

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Brian is a research scientist and educational technologist. He helped transform Pfizer’s Medical Education Group and previously served in educational leadership roles at HealthAnswers, Inc.; Acumentis, LLC.; Cephalon; and Wyeth. He taught graduate medical education programs at Arcadia University for 10 years. Dr. McGowan recently authored the book "#socialQI: Simple Solutions for Improving Your Healthcare" and has been invited to speak internationally on the subject of information flow, technology, and learning in healthcare.

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