We do an awful lot of talking about incentives on this blog. Let’s try something new today. Let’s try talking about something different, maybe something popular, sexy, and topical.
Let’s talk about Latin.
I studied Latin in high school. And, not to brag, but I totally aced it. Straight A’s on every test.
(Okay, so I guess that is bragging a bit. But hey, it’s high school Latin. It doesn’t come up naturally very often, so I have to shoehorn it in when I can.)
But back to my point: even though I did well on every test, I can’t remember a lick of Latin today. Not one word. I had actually forgotten I even took Latin until I started writing this just now. Why is that, then? How could I have done well in Latin class but not remember a single thing about it?
To answer that, we can look at a couple of psychological phenomena about learning and memory: the Spacing Effect and the Zeigarnik Effect.
This one is simple: learning to do something well takes a lot of practice over a long period of time. Spaced practice breaks the learning process into three stages: initial study, review, and final test. Each stage is separated by chunks of time, and the review stage can be further broken down into multiple sessions. In contrast, “massed practice” combines stages one and two into one stage over a shorter period of time.
How do the two compare? Over 250 studies conducted since the 1980s have shown the benefits of spaced practice in the long run, though a slight benefit to massed practice in the short run. Moreover, spaced practice enhances your ability not just to recall information you’ve studied—it helps with problem-solving and generalizing your learning to new situations.
Back to Latin class: when it comes to vocabulary tests, you’ve got a few different ways to go about studying. If you’re good with spaced repetition, you’ll review once a week or so up until test day, and you’ll do pretty well. Or, you could stick with massed learning, and study one time for a few hours, decide you’re good, and forget about it until test day. You won’t do so well.
Or, there’s what I would do. Completely forget to study until the class period right before Latin, then spend an hour desperately cramming for every vocab word on the list.
And heck, I did fine. Throughout the years I took Latin, there’d be about an hour once every couple of weeks where I could have single-handedly resurrected that dead language, what with all the vocab words I knew. But give it a month, and I’d have forgotten every single one. Latin would once again be lost to history.
Compare this to, say, my history classes over the years. Whenever I had a class in U.S. history, we’d always start with the Revolutionary War. Every time. Seriously, I’ve lost count of the number of times I re-learned it. Which is why I can still tell you about the battles of Lexington and Concord, Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown, but I can’t remember the Latin word for “good-bye.” That’s spaced repetition for you.
You probably already have at least a basic understanding of the spacing effect—how often have you heard the phrase “practice makes perfect” in your life? But my on-again, off-again relationship with Latin vocab relates to another effect you might not have heard of: the Zeigarnik Effect.
In the 1920s, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik developed the theory that we tend to remember tasks that are interrupted or uncompleted, rather than finished and done with. It’s said that she first formed this idea after noticing that waiters could recall all the orders of tables they served, down to who asked for what at each table, but only before the bill was paid. Afterwards, they couldn’t remember.
The reasoning is intuitive: when you’re interrupted while trying to focus on learning something, your mind spends some of the interruption continuing to sit with that information. It sits in our short-term memory for as long as we’re paying close attention to it, like a waiter who’s on the clock and in the zone. When we don’t need that information anymore, we’ll commit it to our long-term memory or forget it.
The Zeigarnik Effect might help further explain my Latin study habits. Going into the test after only a brief period of studying, I was still turning over all those words in my short-term memory, because my task of completing the test had yet to be finished. Once the test was over, however, the words fell out of my mind as if a trapdoor opened under their feet. I didn’t need to use them anymore.
The Zeigarnik Effect also offers explanations for things beyond education: for example, why television shows rely so heavily on cliffhangers. A cliffhanger offers you something similar to an unfinished task: a reason to not change the channel during an ad break, or to come back next week for another episode. Clickbait headlines and ads (“Do These Five Crazy Financial Hacks Right Now!”) are also a form of cliffhangers, tempting you to click the link even as you know you’re being played.
So, practice makes perfect and we remember interrupted tasks better than completed ones. What can we take away from this, besides the knowledge that I was a terrible Latin student in high school? There are larger implications for both these phenomena, including for incentives of the eLearning and enablement varieties.
Say you’re thinking about setting up an incentive program with the goal of better educating your channel on the proper use of your product. You might consider offering your program participants a series of eLearning videos and modules for them to learn, with a final quiz at the end to test their new knowledge. They’ll complete the modules, ace the test, and earn the points—but how can you really be sure they’ll retain that information? Perhaps try adding follow-up modules and tests next quarter or offer bonus points for sharing a video of them demonstrating how to use your product. Use the Spacing Effect to your advantage!
We always love a good eLearning program, but for it to be worth it for you and your participants it’s important to make sure they’ll actually remember everything they learn. If you’re working on an eLearning and Enablement campaign, think about how you can structure it in such a way that will help your learners retain the most information over a long period of time. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.
Gratias vobis ago!