Photo by: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay
Companies spend millions of dollars yearly to send employees to train in their respective fields. The employee who can take what they learn and enhance or improve their overall job performance is one in whom the companies’ money is well spent. Instructional designers must develop training that is dynamic and easy to implement. Though there are many factors that contribute to learners’ ability to process and retain information, the focus here is on the spacing and sequencing of content. Some have used these two terms interchangeably, but they are very different.
Spacing refers to how blocks of instruction are organized. If you’ve ever left training feeling overwhelmed, then you may have encountered a problem with spacing. A course that is not properly spaced can overload the learners’ memory capacity. This is often referred to as Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). Cognitive Load Theory is a term that was developed by John Sweller.
Sweller believed that “CLT relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Since working memory has a limited capacity, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning” (Sweller, 1988).
Here are three ways to properly use spacing to address limitations on CLT:
1. Avoid putting too many knowledge-based or definition-type content together. Terminology and knowledge-based information is important as it is the foundation of most learning. Though it is critical to introduce this type of content during a course, space it out between blocks of instruction. Use memory triggers such as games and puzzles to make learning these concepts fun and engaging and to avoid overload.
2. Address the needs of your learners by targeting information to the lower 25%. The lower 25% of learners are those with less than two years of job experience. If content is not targeted to their level, they may not be able to grasp the concepts. If the goal is memory, then it’s important not to give them information above their current ability to process.
3. Keep your deliverables simple. Learners often shut down when there is too much content on a page or when it’s presented in paragraph format. Keep the number of words on your printed material to a minimum. Spread out the technical and complex information and tie in relevant activities to make retention easier.
Spacing is only the first step in building content. Once you determine how you want the content spaced, then you can figure out how you want it sequenced.
Sequencing begins in the design of course content and flows into the administration of that same content. If you’ve ever attended a training course that left you feeling disoriented and confused, then you may have encountered a problem with the way the course was sequenced. Sequencing affects pacing, administration of activities and tests, and the overall organization of the course. Instructional designers and trainers must work together to ensure learning objectives are clearly defined so that every lesson and activity is strategically organized, planned, and administered to maximize the learners’ retention. Training is considered goal-oriented learning because at its end, learners are expected to be transformed into employees who perform.
Though there are many ways to sequence information, we’ll focus on three guidelines to follow:
1. Follow the sequence normally used on the job. This type of sequencing helps make training as real-world as possible. It’s easier for learners to duplicate once they are back on the job and are on their own because they practiced and received feedback repeatedly throughout the learning process.
2. Teach prerequisite tasks first. Build on what the learners already know. This helps build confidence and encourages participation. Most importantly, when learners can identify what they already know, they are receptive to learn what they don’t know.
3. Start with tasks that require extensive practice. This type of sequencing is ideal when teaching complex content. Practice opportunities should be organized and relevant to the task being taught. Here are two ways to practice tasks:
a) Massed practice – practice positioned at the end of a block of instruction.
b) Integrated practice – practice administered numerous times throughout each block of instruction.
Overall, the purpose of spacing and sequencing is to provide learners with content that flows well and is easy to learn so that they can retain the information and apply it back on the job.
This topic is covered in depth in our Instructional Design for New Designers workshop. Be sure to check it out!
What experience can you share about the use of spacing and sequencing in your training? I’d love to hear from you!