Walk into any bookshop and you will find shelves heavy with biographies of illustrious and successful people. They feed a seemingly insatiable public appetite for clues to what lies behind the rise to prominence of the rich and famous. On the Internet and you will find a million blogs and articles with headlines just like this one, all claiming to give you the answer to a question that has been asked in one form or another since the dawn of recorded time: what is the secret of success?
What’s the special sauce, the magic formula? Is it education, heredity, personality type, nature, nurture – God-given talent, or a pact with demonic forces? Why do some people excel at what they do?
Science too has delved into this territory. Typically, some might say, it has failed to provide a simple answer that will satisfy all cases. But the plain fact is that success is not one easily definable, quantifiable thing. There are many types and flavors of success.
Some successes are hard-won, some come easily. As Shakespeare wrote: ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em’. Occasionally what looks like a success to one part of the population might count as a massive failure for another part. Particular successes might be fleeting, a flash in the pan: others endure and grow long after the obituaries have come in. And if you look at the lives of all these people who are achieving these successes, they really don’t have much in common.
However, there is a certain type of success that can be looked into and explained with the tools of science. And science has something really useful to tell us about how you achieve this type of success – reliable advice that can be followed.
The type of success we’re thinking about is one that is rooted in mastery of a particular aptitude or skill. Think of an Olympic athlete, premier league footballer, prima ballerina, or rock and roll guitar legend – then again, a great writer, an internationally renowned garden designer, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, a Michelin-star-winning chef, a famous judge, or a world expert on a particular knowledge area of any type. What they all have in common is mastery of their particular area of practice (‘practice’, being the operative word, as we will see).
Many who achieve celebrity as great leaders in worlds such as business or politics turn out to have begun their rise to fame by excelling in a particular area such as this: the maths prodigy who becomes a tech mogul, the leader of government who makes a first career in law, or science… Many such examples abound.
Through studying individuals who had achieved excellence in various fields, Swedish scientist Anders Errickson came up with a compelling answer to the question of what makes for success; an answer which Malcolm Gladwell turned into a best-selling book. Hours and hours of painstaking practice, it seemed, had been the key to these individuals’ attainments. At the root of Erickson’s discovery was a simple scientific principle that we could apply every day to boost performance in the workplace – using technology tools that most organizations already have: spaced practice.
The spacing effect, which emerged from the work of 19th Century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, is perhaps the most powerful contribution science has made to our understanding of how successful and long-lasting learning can be achieved. Ebbinghaus found that memory decays at an exponential rate. Within minutes, we begin to forget what we’ve learned or have been told. After 20 minutes we might remember only 58%, after a day 34%, after 31 days 21%. Since memory is integral to learning, it follows that if we want to learn anything we have to trigger recall both during and, even more importantly, after any sort of learning intervention.
Ebbinghaus’s famous forgetting curve gives an indication of the frequency with which we need to do this: more intensely at the beginning—so, during the intervention and at its end—then at intervals of increasing length: a day later, a week later, a month later, and so on. In this way, knowledge can be retained and embedded in long-term memory.
Cognitive psychologists of the 20th Century built on Ebbinghaus’s findings, discovering that once memories are encoded into long-term memory they are consolidated by repeated, active spaced practice.
They realized that it is not enough merely to repeat the presentation of learning materials at suitably spaced intervals. Research shows that active recall has a critical impact on performance.
There are four levels of learning:
- Familiar—knew but can’t now remember
- Recognized—correctly recognize the answer in a multiple-choice question
- Recalled—recall with effort but without help
- Automatic—immediate, effortless, high-performance recall
The automaticity achieved at level 4 is what we are attempting to reach in learning a lifelong skill or embedding real behavior change. It is not possible to get there without having passed through the stage of effortful recall on level 3, which is why spaced practice is so important for learning. All of Errickson’s over-achievers will have passed through these four levels to achieve the mastery that underlies their success.
We can emulate that journey to mastery as learners if we have the will and persistence, but it certainly helps if we have the right sort of support. Strange as it might seem, however, although the spacing effect is well known, it isn’t much implemented in formal learning and education.
This enormously powerful technique for supporting deep learning, the sort of transformational learning that can have a real impact on how the individual and the organization perform, is currently too rarely used in a planned, concerted, and explicit way—possibly because in the past, although people knew about the theory, it just seemed too difficult to deploy in the real world. However, many of the barriers to its adoption have now simply disappeared due to the affordances of technology.
Today’s learning systems can create learning pathways and highly personalized learning experiences that treat learning as a process, not an event, and put spaced practice into practice.
We have science that tells us this approach works, we have learner populations who are more receptive to this type of learning, and we have the technology to deploy it. The only question may be whether we really care enough about making superstar performers of our learners to reach for success.
Discover the other blogs in this spaced practice series here. Or download our latest whitepaper, ‘The Spacing Effect: Harnessing the Power of Spaced Practice for Learning That Sticks‘ now.
John Helmer FLPI is a writer, speaker, podcaster and communications consultant. He runs and presents the acclaimed fortnightly podcast The Learning Hack, which features conversations with leading figures in learning in the US and UK.