Development Takes Repetition with Feedback

Copyright The Raffetto GroupEntertaining seminars don’t need repetition or feedback, just right-brain emotional engagement. Training requires the brain’s other hemisphere and the willingness to practice, practice, and repetitively practice to some level of competence. Feedback relies on a mutually-agreed upon competence criterion.

Feedback won’t work if it’s not based on valid standards/benchmarks. Development somehow goes beyond effective training and transforms individuals and their actions forever. To read more about models of development, visit

What sort of practice schedule best facilitates the learning process that’s the foundation for both training and development? Almost a hundred years ago learning theorists in psychology studied the effectiveness of “massed vs. distributed” practice. Simply put, massed practice is repetition with no time between practice efforts (cramming for an exam). Distributed practice spreads the effort out with time spaces between each practice. Today we call that method “spaced repetition”.

Decades of research confirmed that most people learned faster, remembered more completely and performed better using spaced repetition methods. That said, research also made it clear that repetition by itself was insufficient for promoting learning, memory and performance. Feedback is the critical catalyst for effective, spaced repetition. Without it both training and development are severely impaired.

As early as 1911 Edward L. Thorndike wrote about The Law of Effect, which, to oversimplify, stated that “rewarded responses (practice + feedback) tend to be repeated (learned)”. Students of learning will find the same Law of Effect revealed in the scholarly writings of Pavlov and Skinner.

In the workplace, positive feedback is common-sense effective. Everybody acknowledges that! Unfortunately, this common-sense reality is hard to apply in the workplace. That’s one reason there are so many products/systems out there to help businesses gain the advantage that effective positive feedback offers.

While these systems do work when used properly, there is another reality that prevents gaining benefits from any of them. That reality is the all-too-present punishment and negative feedback found in many companies. A hundred years ago it was thought that reward and punishment worked the same way and were equally effective in shaping performance. But the research says otherwise! While positive feedback increases specific behaviors, punishment promotes significant suppression of all kinds of behaviors including the ones you want.

Punishment and negative reinforcement lead to avoidance of general workplace activity. Being aware of what to avoid doing is not at all the same as knowing exactly what you should be doing. Avoidance and behavioral suppression hurt performance and promote adversarial employees with an “us-versus-them” mindset!

In summary the message about feedback is this:

  • Feedback is critical for development;
  • It works well when it is coupled with spaced repetition;
  • It works best when it is positive and it has uncontrolled consequences when negative; and
  • It must be satisfying and meaningful to the one giving and the one receiving it.
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Allen Raffetto

About Allen Raffetto

Allen M. Raffetto, Ph.D., the group’s founder, brings together psychology and business for clients throughout North America. He has worked extensively with companies in the Midwest since 1983. Dr. Raffetto holds degrees in psychology from Stanford University (B.A.), San Francisco State University (M.A.) and the University of North Dakota, (Ph.D.). His specialized area, cognitive psychology, includes studies of human learning, memory, perception and information processing. He was a member of the faculty and Chairman of the Psychology Department at Beloit College from 1969 to 1984. During those years Dr. Raffetto also held research appointments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied the reading process, and at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, where he participated in an on-going study of how medical education transforms bright students into practicing physicians.

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