(By Matt Trevithick)
Spaced repetition should be used for much more than memory tricks and learning languages. Having directly managed a team of researchers and employees of varied backgrounds since 2013 at the company I co-founded, I see enormous potential for the introduction of spaced repetition as a learning tool to augment the daily lives and workflows of employees. We are not even at the beginning of how this technology could be used to make enormous, quantifiable improvements in the workplace, resulting in better output and happier employees.
SRS Overview – Some Popular Current Uses
- Used for education – some medical school students are particularly fond of it, though its popularity stems from students trying to help each other out in the face of an enormous amount of memorization rather than any university initiative to ease the burden students are facing. Unfortunately, most students I've interacted with simply stop using it after their formal education is complete or they've passed the test they were studying for.
- Used for language acquisition – Famously Chinese and Japanese, though Alex, Natalie and I use it for other languages.
- Use for personal development – incredibly time-consuming, I use to this to add into my cherished Anki deck “Books Life” everything I find interesting from what I’m reading. This process involves a few cups of strong coffee on a weekend morning, where I download my Kindle notes and go through them, looking up the basics of an event, name, piece of art, or some other underlined text.
Though there are of course other uses, in general, approaches involving this technology are highly individualized and require large amounts of time to bring to fruition. This helps explains the lack of any formalized adoption by organized groups of people.
SRS In the Workplace – A New Frontier
The workplace provides – outside of the university – perhaps the single most appropriate location for daily, incremental improvement, with all the requisite incentives that will keep people accountable.
- On-board new employees
- Use to learn new procedures
- Reinforce training programs for staff
- Reinforce key themes and messages from important events / presentations
- Learn new concepts before heading to a place (businessmen to a foreign country, etc)
- Minimal – only studying what you don’t know
- I envision a system ultimately developed that is customized for the Monday-Friday workweek, requiring less than five minutes per day
- No other system available takes less time
- No other system delivers the results SRS does
Use of this software could be directly to employee performance reviews. On one end of the spectrum, simple and lightweight reminders (nudges) could be created to remind employees to accomplish this daily task. At the other end of the spectrum could be something as simple as not allowing employees to log into their computer until the questions have been answered first thing in the morning.
Potential Pitfalls to be Avoided - Ideological Resistance
Resistance to this concept of learning / improvement comes from all corners, even from expected allies. Much to my surprise, I’ve found the most stalwart opponents of learning (I’m aware I’m using a loaded term here that is breathlessly debated) often have PhDs attached to their signatures. My very first meeting with a group of academics in Boston this past summer, where I excitedly laid out my thoughts about developing a platform that would allow for the development of spaced repetition systems far beyond what was currently available, ended on a sour note after I found myself unexpectedly trying to explain to university professors why it was important to remember bits of information, particularly over time (which itself carries staggering implications for the creation of the first ever genuinely effective life-long learning system). This was attacked as rote memorization and I was unprepared to address this point.
In subsequent discussions, I’ve approached this concept from the perspective of creativity and helping students (or employees) come up with ideas about what they’re studying, which goes down a bit better. The analogy is simple – if creativity / new thoughts are nothing more than the link of two (or more) bits of information in your head, then the most important step is to have as many bits of information as you can in your head. The more dots to connect, the more ideas, the more creativity, and the more thinking that occurs.
Potential Pitfalls to be Avoided - Workplace Resistance
If rolled out incorrectly, this system could provoke an intense and fierce backlash from employees who will resent what they perceive as yet another intrusion into their lives – another standard to keep in mind, another regulation, etc. This issue must be handled very sensitively by company administrators, who also must ensure that the employee is learning only material directly useful to their performance. This means keeping deck sizes under control.
There will be grumbling through the first few weeks of the rollout, but through daily use, the total burden of the program should reduce to one or two minutes as well as days where there is no material to review, assuming administrators have been responsible with determining exactly what is necessary to be included in the decks.
Thought: Slowly phase in more material. Perhaps create a limit of a deck to just 100 cards initially, studying 20 new cards per day. More cards can be added incrementally once or twice per month or on set schedules.
We are not even at the beginning of how this technology could be used to make enormous, quantifiable improvements in the workplace. With employees in particular, I see the adoption of this service as something that could dramatically improve employee performance (meaning a happier, more efficient employee, not an additionally-burdened employee) through better comprehension of company policies, expectations and procedures. This is an extension of the concept of the brain exerting less energy to accomplish tasks which it understands well or are routine.
For adaptation to a company, the burden is almost entirely with senior management to ensure that the rollout is done carefully and steps are taken to ensure that this simple system is implemented in a way that is minimally invasive. The anticipation of negative reactions is critically important and must be prepared for.
But should it be done well, it just might (almost assuredly) result in significantly more educated and productive workforce.