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Spaced repetition and gamification: useful tools in high hazard sector training

14 June 2016

When it comes to ensuring the health and safety of employees of companies operating within high hazard industries, the most critical component has to be competency. This has been demonstrated many times in industrial incidents such as Buncefield, Texas City, and Deepwater Horizon, where the responsibility was ultimately ascribed to human error. In this article, Jon Davies of Wranx looks at how the latest findings in cognitive science can help companies im

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Training is essential in all companies involved in the process and high hazard industries, but how effective is it? Problems can arise when trying to choose the right techniques to impart different kinds of knowledge.

Challenges associated with high hazard industry training

With a competent complement of staff, high hazard organisations can reduce the frequency of workplace incidents, act in accordance with industry regulations, bring about a more safety-centric culture, avoid lost time from unforeseeable accidents, and enhance profitability through greater productivity.

First and foremost, you must schedule time for training to take place. In many companies, managers can be reluctant to let employees take significant time away from their duties to attend a training course. Even if a suitable time is arranged, the employees themselves may be reluctant to attend the course for any number of reasons.

This is not helped by the passive nature of most corporate training courses, where a teacher/student scenario can lead to limited employee involvement, reducing the effectiveness of the learning experience.

Although these challenges affect other industries, high hazard sector companies also have additional factors to contend with. Rapid changes in technology, corporate policy or regulations can make it hard to adapt and prepare training materials for employees to learn from. Even if this obstacle is overcome, employees may feel overwhelmed by too much information, which will not find its way into their long-term memories.

In spite of these challenges, some companies will have developed a comprehensive and coherent training framework that surmounts these difficulties. Here, other modern training methods might enhance staff competency still further.

The science of spaced repetition

In a “How Students Learn” series at the Berkeley GSI Centre, professors Arthur Shimamura and John Kihlstrom from the Department of Psychology looked at the cognitive science behind memory. Not only did they find students learn best when they studied meaningful teaching materials and took control of their own knowledge uptake, but also that repetition and simple mnemonic study techniques were extremely effective.

It almost goes without saying that people remember information better when something is meaningful to them, like your date of birth, instead of a random string of numbers. However, teachers and trainers can make the most of this phenomenon through elaborative encoding, which is already known by psychologists as a way of connecting course content to the students’ lives.

Taking control, however, refers to “top-down processing,” where learners select and elaborate on what they perceive, which actively shapes their learning as it takes place and can lead to the formation of stronger memories. This is compared to “bottom-up processing,” which shares similarities with traditional classroom-based training as it passively allows perceptions to occur in the hope of building a field of knowledge.

The latest cognitive research also suggests that mnemonic techniques can take advantage of the way the mind and brain give precedence to memories that have been repeatedly encoded over a prolonged period of time. This is known as spaced repetition, graduated intervals, or expanded retrieval and exploits the psychological spacing effect.

This teaching technique is not particularly revolutionary, as it is commonly used by people learning a musical instrument who might take one lesson a week over a long period of time. In recent years it has become more widespread thanks to advances in technology, and language learning apps on smartphones and tablets, for example, will generally use spaced repetition.
Many companies also use spaced repetition within their existing eLearning frameworks, which might use electronic media and computer systems for training purposes.

These same applications and software programmes also feature real-life learning scenarios that the student can relate to, while providing both flexibility and freedom. All of these factors combined result in a more effective learning experience which can be used in industrial training environments.

The science of gamification

Through spaced repetition, members of staff have the opportunity to take control of their own learning. In addition, the concept of gamification can add even more interactivity and ownership into the mix for a truly immersive experience.

Gamification is the practice of integrating game mechanics and elements in a non-game context. From a training perspective, this could involve adding points, badges, and a leaderboard to an eLearning course. This makes the process more enjoyable, and the addition of these elements provides learners with a much more compelling, engaging and memorable experience.

Gamification also makes sense from a cultural perspective because humanity spends three billion hours a week playing video and computer games. However, it is important to differentiate between playing a driving simulation or shoot ‘em up and learning with the help of game elements and mechanics. As the MIT paper ‘Moving Learning Games Forward’ explains, gamification can be used for authoring platforms, content systems, simulations, technology gateways, and research assignments.

Several other reports and research have looked at gamification for teaching purposes, such as ‘The Gamification of Learning and Instruction’ by Dr Karl Kapp, who says: “the future of eLearning cannot be boring courses lacking engagement or emotional response. Instead they need to be interactive, engaging, and full of passion and enthusiasm. In short, the future of eLearning must include games and gamification.”

Traci Sitzmann, a professor from the University of Colorado in Denver, carried out another significant gamification study. Having looked at the effectiveness of gamification over the duration of a year with data from 6,476 adult trainees, she found that skill-based knowledge levels increased by 14%, factual-knowledge levels increased by 11%, and retention of material learnt increased by 9%.

From this we can see that any eLearning course that introduces spaced repetition and gamification can noticeably increase the effectiveness of training.

Implementing spaced repetition and gamification training

Spaced repetition and gamification can give employees power and flexibility over their learning experience, and the same goes for employers too. A number of eLearning providers already have systems in place that allow organisations to add their own subjects or skills to the training solution with minimal effort or upheaval. So, for high hazard industries with rapidly-changing regulations or policies, the entire workforce can continually receive instantaneously updated training materials.

At the same time, employers are also given useful insights into the learning progression of employees thanks to in-depth reporting tools. Managers can receive feedback on issues such as enrolment and activity, cohort knowledge retention rates, predicted course completion dates, and even value metrics such as cost and time saved.

Also, spaced repetition and gamification need not be tied to technological platforms such as computers or tablets but can be incorporated into other, more basic, learning tools.  

As an example, London Underground (LU) wanted to educate its staff and contractors about its latest health and safety guidelines. Owing to the fact that employees operate in very remote conditions in strict time windows throughout the night, finding the time and locating the facilities for training was an ongoing issue.

To overcome this, LU worked with a creative design agency to produce training materials that had a more direct and accessible tone of voice than previous internal communications. This approach also put spaced repetition and gamification to good use without the need for technology.

The resulting deck of playing cards featured memorable, bite-sized health and safety facts for members of staff to play with and learn from. These were organised into four suits; healthy eating, sleeping, leisure time, and staying alert, which borrowed the game mechanics of ordinary playing cards but adopted an educational twist. This unique and innovative approach towards spaced repetition and gamification resulted in a 70% increase in engagement and understanding compared to previous employee surveys.

Not all high hazard industries will want to implement this kind of strategy, but it just goes to show what is possible when spaced repetition and gamification are used for training purposes.

About the author

Jon Davies is the co-founder of training app Wranx which provides continual training and assessment to help HR and Learning and Development professionals extend their training and communication strategies out of the classroom and office.

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