Rains: Why I'm Giving Up on 'Cramming'

May 27, 2022

Cramming is overrated. Learn how to foster a culture of long-term learning and professional development in your shop.

When it comes to taking tests or accomplishing school projects, were you a “crammer”? I was. But an article I read in the NeuroLeadership Journal helped me realize that cramming doesn’t promote long-term learning or retention. And now that I’ve admitted that I was a crammer, perhaps another confession is in order. I often allowed my teams to cram I-CAR classes just so we could check the boxes for Gold. I’m not saying we didn’t do the work. We did. But often, the classes were in service of just getting them done as opposed to actually cultivating a culture of learning, professional development, and retention. 

If I had it to do over again, I’d do my best to apply the learning from the story in the NeuroLeadership Journal that employs the acronym AGES.     

There are main components needed for effective learning to take place. They can inform how we train and onboard new team members, how technicians receive ongoing training and accelerate the pace of an estimator's mastery. Really, these principles are so universal that they work in any setting where someone is trying to impart knowledge and skills to someone else.

‘A’ is For Attention 

The first order of business is you must have someone’s full attention. This is harder than it may seem and frankly, it’s getting more difficult as distractions are constantly multiplying. Add to that how much we’re addicted as a culture to our phones. Getting someone’s full attention and maintaining that for any meaningful amount of time takes real skill. 

The article discusses three key ways to help people with attention. First, the learning has to be relevant and the learner has to see direct connections to their life. Answering the question “How does this make the work I do every day easier and more productive?” could help. The second way is that the learning needs to be social. How can you get learners to interact with their peers who are also learning this new information or skill? And lastly, keeping someone’s attention happens best when there’s physical movement and interaction. Is there an activity that ties into the learning process where the learner can engage in physically? 

‘G’ is For Generation

Generating connections with existing knowledge is the second key to learning. It was once thought that repetition of new information is what solidified learning. Did anyone else have to memorize things and then regurgitate that information for tests in school? Well, it turns out that isn’t a very effective tactic. Learning, and especially retention of learning, occurs best when the learner takes an active role in integrating the new information with something else they already know. 

One of the most effective ways to improve retention is to get the students to talk to each other. The teacher can present a new idea or concept, but then have the students talk about it in pairs. They can discuss how this new information connects to something else they already know, or maybe a personal experience they’ve had. We’re hardwired to remember experiences and stories much easier compared to loads of raw data. Interacting with peers who are also learning allows the learner to generate those neural connections needed for recall of new information. 

‘E’ is For Emotions 

Emotions are a topic that many shop leaders would simply like to avoid. Are we supposed to be counselors in addition to all of our other responsibilities? For better or worse, sometimes the responsibility falls on us. But that’s not what this section is all about. Emotional connections in a learning environment significantly aid learning and retention. 

One of the best ways to trigger positive emotions in a learner is to tie the new information to them on a personal level. Explaining how this training is unique and sets them apart from their peers triggers a sense of pride and confidence. If learners feel like the training will increase their competence and elevate them in the eyes of their manager or coworkers, they’ll be more motivated to learn. 

‘S’ is For Spacing

This one is my favorite. Have you ever been to an all-day training and just felt drained at the end of it? That’s because the trainer likely didn’t understand the importance of spacing. Research shows that turning an 8-hour training into two 4-hour training sessions is better for retention. Why is that? Because “cramming” isn’t an effective way to learn. Having time to digest information and begin applying it greatly enhances the learning experience. 

So why don’t more trainers do this? I believe it has to do with costs and a desire to be efficient. If we’re simply trying to get people to complete a training and “check a box” saying the task is done, then all-day training is great. But if we really want people to learn, giving room and time between training sessions is the best route. 

Cramming is overrated. I encourage you to integrate the AGES method as you foster a culture of learning and professional development in your shop.