Interval reinforcement in workplace learning

Posted on Mar 14, 2017


Louise Pasterfield predicts a big future for interval reinforcement in workplace learning.

If you’ve been to the gym lately, you’ll know just how popular interval training has become. Everyone seems to be getting into the fitness technique that involves short bursts of high-intensity activity.  There is growing evidence that interval training is more effective than longer workouts. Researchers at McMaster University in Canada found that three 20-minute sessions of interval training a week provided the same benefits as 10 hours of steady exercise over a two-week period.

Just as shorter bursts of activity over regular intervals are better for our bodies, they are also good for our brains.        

Interval reinforcement is extremely effective in helping people build and remember knowledge. The issue for organisations has been how to introduce it in a way that’s time and cost effective and can be shown to achieve measurable business results. Now, advances in what intelligent platforms and content can deliver and measure, coupled with instant accessibility means that learning reinforcement is taking off.

Head of Platforms at Sponge UK, Stephen Miller, says that for learning teams who’ve long awaited a solution to the age-old problem of employee knowledge retention, it’s time to get excited: “Essentially, this means that learning is never forgotten,” said Stephen.

Science-backed learning

Interval Reinforcement (also known as Spaced Repetition) is a scientific technique for maximising knowledge retention. The Axonify platform uses this method to help businesses achieve impressive results.  Here’s the Axonify definition of interval reinforcement:

“It’s a process that involves taking content and repeating the presentation of that content to employees over predefined intervals so it is effectively reinforced. In other words, it IS an ongoing and interesting test-refresh cycle in bite-sized pieces that makes learning stick. The space in between each iteration is also important in maximising information retention. The aim is to provide a consistent, continual intervention that refreshes employee knowledge, fills in information they may have missed or forgotten, and keeps motivation high. This will keep the training knowledge top of mind, and help employees to apply it to the job.”

There’s also evidence that interval reinforcement helps our ability to recall information quickly.  Our memory responds positively to repetition, something known as retrieval practice. It’s the principle of learning something, being tested on recall, refreshing knowledge and being tested again.  The latest research suggests that combining interval reinforcement and retrieval practice is particularly beneficial for learners. And we’re starting to see this at some of the biggest global brands.

Success stories

Crucially, learning reinforcement is tied to business results and organisations that have been quick off the mark are already seeing impressive returns on their investment.

Bloomingdale's introduced interval reinforcement training for shopfloor employees at their 45 department stores in the US in response to safety incidents tracking above what was acceptable. This health and safety training was used to improve employee knowledge retention about safety practices. In Year One, it saved the company $2.2 million as a result of a 41% reduction in safety claims. Employee confidence increased by over 86%. This is solely attributed to the learning reinforcement programme.

Bloomingdale's Infographic


Chad McIntosh, VP of Loss Prevention & Risk Management at Bloomingdale's, said: “We have fundamentally changed how we deliver Associate learning and the results have been outstanding. We have a smarter, safer, more engaged workforce.”

Walmart was also looking for a solution to health and safety challenges. The company used interval reinforcement training in more than 150 distribution centres across the United States, involving more than 75,000 employees. The staff received daily questions on safety topics to help them change on-the-job behaviour.

The results were impressive. Recordable incidents at the retailer’s distribution centres decreased by 54%; some 96% of behaviour observations have been positive; and voluntary participation on the platform averages 91%.

This data is available because the Axonify platform used at Walmart and Bloomingdale's has a fully in-built analytics tool that allow businesses to measure against pre-defined business goals to see how successful the training has been. “The real advantage of this type of learning is being able to see, track and monitor real business results which an LMS cannot do for you,” said Stephen.

The intelligence behind the content

Getting the content right is the key to the success of each individual programme. Stephen explained: “There’s a very clearly defined learning design route that fires the questions out to learners. So, if I’m the learner, it will only send me questions that are relevant to my learning as an individual. If I’m getting questions 100% right with full confidence, it’s going to send me fewer repetitious questions of that topic area and it will focus more on the areas where I have a shortfall in learning and knowledge. The learning reinforcement fills those voids and is constantly building upon them over time.

“There is also a ‘knowledge on demand’ service so you can search key words related to your role or your business. It’s extremely intelligent.”

The bite-sized chunks of content sent out to employees takes up no more than 2-3 minutes of their day. Importantly, the learners are receiving the learning on devices they’re familiar with. The content is totally interactive in terms of the user experience but is relatively simple. It might have a little in the way of multi-media but really, it’s based around the learning design behind the build of the questions and the content.

Within 30 days, learners have forgotten most of what they learned. The ‘forgetting curve’ and knowledge retention graphics are telling:

Interval Reinforecement Graphic

Where it works well

Learning reinforcement is most appropriate for use in scenarios where there are goal or task-orientated learning environments, situations where there is a clear definition on standards. So health and safety, risk reduction, sales enablement scenarios, all fit well. Organisations that have a ‘modern worker’ demographic – fast-paced organisations, requiring knowledge quickly, on demand, on mobile – are also suited. But it’s not restricted to just those types of environments. It also works well within other areas too, such as call centres, customer services and retail.

And, whilst many companies do have a formal learning management system, with heavy content and classroom-based learning as their foundation for training, interval reinforcement learning can be used to either complement existing training strategies, or as a stand-alone solution. It’s a fully cloud-based SaaS solution so there are no IT infrastructure or security concerns for organisations to consider and there are none of the headaches of having it installed on their own server.

It’s going to be big…

This is only the start for interval reinforcement. Looking ahead, this is the way learning is going. The newest technology is so intelligent that it allows the content to be updated in the space of an afternoon to reflect the learner’s progress or in response to changes in an organisation’s learning needs.

There was an example of this at Bloomingdale's. Following a potential security incident in New York, they updated their programme to reassure their associates on the shop floor. Within 24 hours, staff were able to access this training, which was along the lines of ‘here’s the scenario that could happen, here are the precautions and here’s what you need to do’. And managers were able to monitor the results to test that everyone was comfortable with that.

It’s only very recently that employees and organisations have been ready for this type of learning; for many it might still be too soon. But this will change. A lot of organisations are already talking about it. Expect learning reinforcement to become an integral part of your learning strategy in future.

Quote Louise Pasterfield

Louise Pasterfield is Managing Director of Sponge UK, official UK partner for Axonify.

This article was originally published in e.learning age magazine November 2016.

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