5 Psychology Principles You Can Use to Improve Your Product Training

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Whether you’re running product training for your sales team, your customer service representatives, or even to help increase digital adoption rates, there are some proven psychological techniques you can use to improve the efficacy of your program.

In 2013 a group of psychologists reviewed almost 100 years of cognitive and educational psychology studies. During this comprehensive literature review, they identified 5 key learning techniques that showed a tangible effect on learning comprehension and retention.

In this article I’ll break down what those learning techniques are, why they work, and how you can easily apply them to your next product training program.

Let’s get started.

1. Distributed Practice

Dunlosky et al define distributed practice as “implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time.” [1] Essentially, it means that instead of learning all at once (like in traditional day-long corporate training sessions), learning is spread out over time.
Learning can occur quickly under massed-practice conditions, so it seems like an efficient way to teach, but hundreds of studies have shown that distributed practice leads to more durable learning.
— Henry Roediger

Distributed practice is one of the most effective techniques you can use to improve your employees’ learning and knowledge retention. Learners have to work harder to remember information after time has passed — which helps encode it in their memory.

Proportion of items answered correctly on an initial test administered in each of six practice sessions (prior to actual practice) and on the final test 30 days after the final practice session as a function of lag between sessions (0 days, 1 day, or 30 days) in  Bahrick (1979) .

Proportion of items answered correctly on an initial test administered in each of six practice sessions (prior to actual practice) and on the final test 30 days after the final practice session as a function of lag between sessions (0 days, 1 day, or 30 days) in Bahrick (1979).

You can easily apply distributed practice techniques to your product training with microlearning. Break your learning content up into short digestible pieces of content. Then encourage employees to retake courses after a period of time.

If you use Lemonade, your content is already structured in a microlearning format. You can easily remind employees to retake courses using the “Triggers” feature. Otherwise, an emailed reminder will work as well.

The length of time between learning sessions should depend on how long you want employees to retain information:

“... criterion performance was best when the lag between sessions was approximately 10–20% of the desired retention interval. For example, to remember something for 1 week, learning episodes should be spaced 12 to 24 hours apart; to remember something for 5 years, the learning episodes should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart.” [2]

2. Practice Testing

Practice testing is a technique where learners “test” themselves on learned material in a low to no-stakes environments (i.e. they aren’t evaluated on the test).

Dunlosky et al found this technique to be extremely effective for increasing knowledge retention as well as learning comprehension. Practice testing helps keep information “at learner’s mental fingertips” by forcing them to practice recalling it — which in turn, helps encode it in their long-term memory. [3] They also found that more practice testing is better — so you don’t need to worry about “over-testing” your employees.

“testing can enhance retention by triggering elaborative retrieval processes. Attempting to retrieve target information involves a search of long-term memory that activates related information, and this activated information may then be encoded along with the retrieved target, forming an elaborated trace that affords multiple pathways to facilitate later access to that information.” [4]

Mean accuracy on a final test administered 1 day or 1 week after a learning session that either did or did not include a practice test, for the top and bottom thirds of scorers on a baseline measure of ability, in  Spitzer (1939) .

Mean accuracy on a final test administered 1 day or 1 week after a learning session that either did or did not include a practice test, for the top and bottom thirds of scorers on a baseline measure of ability, in Spitzer (1939).

You can apply practice testing techniques to your product training by including rounds of quizzes in your courses. These quizzes should be framed as part of the learning activity — not as an evaluation of the learner.

It’s also important to provide feedback. You need to tell learners whether their answer was correct, otherwise you risk encoding incorrect information. (If you use Lemonade, this quiz + feedback structure is already built into the platform’s authoring tools for most step modules. You can just continue authoring as usual!)

3. Interleaved Practice

Dunlosky et al define interleaved practice as “a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.” [5] Essentially, it’s a technique where different topics and/or materials are woven together so learners can bounce from topic to topic.

Interleaved practice is effective because it “allows [learners] to more readily compare different kinds of problems.” [6] While this can negatively affect initial learning scores, interleaved practice helps learners organize learning material in their mind so they more accurately apply it. Dunlosky et al also found that interleaved practice helps encode learning in long-term memory, increasing retention.

Another possible explanation [for why interleaved practice is effective] is based on the distributed retrieval from long-term memory that is afforded by interleaved practice. [...] for blocked practice, the information relevant to completing a task [...] should reside in working memory; hence, participants should not have to retrieve the solution. [...] By contrast, for interleaved practice, when the next type of problem is presented, the solution method for it must be retrieved from long-term memory.
— Dunlosky et al

You can apply interleaved practice techniques in your product training by mixing multiple topics and/or problem solving scenarios together. For example, you might include multiple role-play scenarios that must be solved using different selling/customer service strategies and/or different products.

Percentage of correct responses on sets of problems completed in practice sessions and on a delayed criterion test in  Rohrer and Taylor (2007) .

Percentage of correct responses on sets of problems completed in practice sessions and on a delayed criterion test in Rohrer and Taylor (2007).

4. Elaborative-Interrogation

Elaborative-interrogation is a technique where learners have to “generate an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.” [7]

This technique prompts learners to ask “why,” which helps facilitate learning and integrate new information with previous knowledge.  Dunlosky et al found that elaborative-interrogation doesn’t have a demonstrable effect on retention, but it is helpful for learning new facts — especially for topics that learners already know well.

Mean percentage of logical-reasoning problems answered correctly for concrete practice problems and subsequently administered abstract transfer problems in  Berry (1983) . During a practice phase, learners self-explained while solving each problem, self-explained after solving all problems, or were not prompted to engage in self-explanation.

Mean percentage of logical-reasoning problems answered correctly for concrete practice problems and subsequently administered abstract transfer problems in Berry (1983). During a practice phase, learners self-explained while solving each problem, self-explained after solving all problems, or were not prompted to engage in self-explanation.

Elaborative-interrogation techniques are most useful in product training for building deeper product knowledge once the basic have already been learned. You can use elaborative-interrogation by including open-ended “why” questions in your training, such as “why is this true?” or “why does it make sense that…?”

5. Self-Explanation

Self-explanation is a technique where learners explain “some aspect of their processing during learning” — whether that’s how new information is related to known information, or the steps they took during problem solving. [8]

Similar to elaborative-interrogation, self-explanation enhances learning by integrating new information with previous knowledge. Dunlosky et al also found that “self-explanation effects have been shown across an impressive range of learning outcomes, including various measures of memory, comprehension, and transfer.” [9] However they noted that further research is needed to understand how long those benefits last (i.e. if it impacts long-term retention).

Of the 5 learning techniques, self-explanation is most difficult to apply to online training as it typically involves learners explaining out-loud the steps they’re taking for problem solving. However, if you do in-person role-plays in addition to online product training, you could have employees explain their reasoning and/or process out loud as they go through a scenario.

Mean percentage of correct responses on a final test for learners with high or low domain knowledge who engaged in elaborative interrogation or in reading only during learning (in  Woloshyn, Pressley, & Schneider, 1992 ).

Mean percentage of correct responses on a final test for learners with high or low domain knowledge who engaged in elaborative interrogation or in reading only during learning (in Woloshyn, Pressley, & Schneider, 1992).

The Bottom Line

Distributed practice, practice testing, interleaved practice, elaborative-interrogation, and self-explanation are proven psychological techniques you can use to improve the efficacy of your product training.

You can use these techniques on their own or combine them for greater impact. In particular, distributed practice combined with practice testing can have a significant impact on comprehension and retention.