Your job as an L&D professional is not only to get the right training in front of the right people. It’s also to help ensure those people are engaging with and absorbing the content.
With the focus on actual learning, let’s consider two different training approaches: targeted learning vs. interleaving.
The first is familiar and straightforward—you focus on and complete one topic at a time. The second might be new to you—mixing different topics or modes of practice in one session.
Each has its benefits. And when you know how to get the best of both, you help your team learn better and ensure you meet your training goals.
The case for targeted training
Targeted training, also known as blocked practice, involves focusing on (or practicing) a single skill or concept for a sustained period before moving on to another.
This approach is often the natural choice when it comes to training. It makes sense to focus on one concept at a time to avoid information overload. And it has its merits in specific situations, including:
- Skill mastery. Targeted training can be effective for developing a high level of mastery in a specific skill or concept. Intensive practice allows learners to build a solid foundation and refine their abilities.
- Building confidence. Repeated success in a focused area can boost learners’ confidence and motivation. This can be especially important for beginners or people lacking self-assurance in a particular topic.
- Immediate application. Targeted training is great for short-term performance improvements. For instance, preparing for a specific task or test. Targeted training can lead to quick gains in the practiced skill.
The benefits of interleaved training
Interleaved practice involves mixing different skills or concepts within a single practice session, rather than focusing on one skill at a time.
It may sound counter-productive. But interleaving training has proven to be an effective learning method. It’s particularly helpful for learners who already have a foundational understanding of the subject. But who are looking to deepen their knowledge and problem-solving abilities.
Here are some benefits of interleaving in learning:
- Stronger learning transfer. Interleaved practice encourages learners to identify the right strategy for each problem. It promotes better understanding. And helps employees transfer knowledge so they can use the skills back on the job.
- More efficient learning over time. Interleaved practice leads to more durable learning over time. It strengthens learners’ memory retrieval, making the knowledge more accessible in the long term.
- Long-term retention. Interleaved practice encourages “spaced repetition.” This is where you revisit topics over time. Spaced repetition helps strengthen memory and retention of material.
- Real-world understanding. In the real world, employees often need new skills and concepts at unpredictable times. Interleaved practice simulates this environment. It prepares learners to handle skills on the fly.
Interleaving vs. blocked practice: When should you use each?
So which of these is the optimal learning technique for your organization?
It depends on your specific learning goals. It also comes down to how complex a subject is and the learners’ skill levels.
Here’s a breakdown of when each approach is best suited and how you can get the best of both:
When to use targeted training
Targeted learning is most effective when you’re focusing on specific skills or areas of improvement.
Here are some employee development scenarios suited for targeted learning:
- Addressing skill gaps. Design targeted learning experiences to take on skill gaps directly. Targeted practice helps employees build their skill sets in areas where they may be falling short.
- Adopting new technology or tools. Seamless integration of new software, tools, or technologies requires focused training. Develop modules or buy off-the-shelf training that concentrates on the ins and outs of these tools. This will help employees become proficient quickly.
- Compliance training. In industries with evolving regulations, compliance training is critical. Develop targeted learning content that focuses on the latest changes. This ensures employees are up-to-date and able to meet legal requirements.
- Leadership and management skills. As employees transition into new roles, provide targeted training that hones specific leadership skills. Consider topics like effective communication, conflict resolution, and team management. These skills are essential for their success in guiding and motivating their teams.
- Technical skills. Employees in technical roles need to stay current with the latest developments. Provide targeted training on specific skills to keep employees on the cutting edge of their field.
- Short-term performance improvement. Sometimes, learners need to improve their performance for a specific task or test. In these cases, targeted training can lead to immediate gains.
When to use interleaved practice
Interleaving helps you enhance overall problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and adaptability. It enables employees to apply knowledge in diverse contexts.
Interleaving is best used in these types of scenarios:
- Sales and product knowledge. Instead of training on one product at a time, train teams on multiple products at once. This encourages sales professionals to differentiate between products. It lets them make comparisons and adapt their pitches based on customer needs.
- Problem-solving in technical roles. Interleaving various types of problems or troubleshooting scenarios challenges employees. And prepares them for realistic scenarios. It helps them see how to apply their skills to different problems. This, in turn, promotes a deeper understanding of concepts.
- Leadership challenges. Give leaders diverse scenarios that require them to make decisions across skills. These may include team management, conflict resolution, and strategic planning. Interleaving these challenges helps them learn to think and respond flexibly.
- Cross-functional training. Interleaving training across different functions (such as marketing, finance, and operations) helps people understand how their departments work together. This will help them make more informed decisions.
Interleaving challenges employees to recognize patterns across different scenarios. It improves learning transfer to real-world situations. And makes them more adaptable, leading to a dynamic work environment.
The best of both worlds: How to combine interleaving and focused learning
Often, a combination of approaches is the most effective solution.
For example, start with targeted training to build foundational skills and confidence. Then, transition to mixed practice training. Use it to deepen understanding and promote knowledge transfer.
Here are a few ways to offer a combination of both and provide flexibility for learners.
1. Link related training topics
Often, skills or concepts overlap between similar topics. For instance, communication and customer service training. Both might talk about handling angry conversations. Or share practices for effective listening.
You could group the relevant modules (say, helping customers feel heard and active listening). Then, provide practices involving both in-office and customer service scenarios.
As learners switch between topics, they’ll learn to adapt the same set of skills to different scenarios. This, in turn, will make it easier to adapt the skills back on the job.
2. Use progressive skill-building challenges
Present your training as a series of progressively challenging tasks. Have each touch on different aspects of the skill being taught. As learners advance, introduce new challenges that incorporate concepts they’ve previously encountered along with new information.
For instance, in software development training, start with basic coding exercises. Then introduce intermediate challenges, and finally, more advanced coding projects.
This approach encourages learners to revisit and refine their knowledge. At the same time, it helps them adapt that knowledge to evolving demands. They’ll build a more robust skillset over time.
3. Use mixed practicing for review sessions
Even when you’re using targeted training, boost the effectiveness of practice by mixing up the content in reviews.
For instance, run a series of real-life scenarios that require skills from across several lessons.
This method encourages learners to recall information from different modules. It reinforces their memory and their understanding of the material.
Revisiting content this way will help employees retain and integrate their learning better. It will also make it easier to apply the acquired knowledge in real-world scenarios.
Keep the focus on learning
At the end of the day, it’s not a battle. It’s not a good vs. poor training method. It’s about promoting and reinforcing learning–and empowering learners.
Choosing the right training approach means finding a balance between interleaving and focused learning.
By strategically combining these techniques, you can create a comprehensive and adaptable employee training program. One that’s focused on real learning at a deep level.
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