Research Highlights - December 2019

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How can you use the findings from the latest research studies to improve your performance and the performance of your organization?  We’ll provide the highlights and key ideas you won’t get anywhere else.

Educators and educational scholars have long recognized that there is something of a “sweet spot” when it comes to learning.  That is, we learn best when we are challenged to grasp something just outside the bounds of our existing knowledge.  When a challenge is too simple, we don’t learn anything new; likewise, we don’t enhance our knowledge when a challenge is so difficult that we fail entirely or give up.

So, where does the sweet spot lie?  According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, it’s when the failure occurs 15 percent of the time.  Put another way, it’s when the right answer is given 85 percent of the time.

The researchers came up with the so-called “85 percent Rule” after conducting a series of machine-learning experiments in which they taught computers simple tasks, such as classifying different patterns into one of two categories or classifying photographs of handwritten digits as odd versus even numbers, or low versus high numbers.

The computers learned fastest in situations in which the difficulty was such that they responded with 85 percent accuracy.

If you have an error rate of 15 percent or an accuracy of 85 percent, you are always maximizing your rate of learning in these two-choice tasks.

When the researchers looked at previous studies of animal learning, they found that the 85 percent Rule held true in those instances as well.

When we think about how humans learn, the 85 percent Rule would most likely apply to perceptual learning, in which we gradually learn through experience and examples.  Imagine, for instance, a radiologist learning to tell the difference between images of tumors and non-tumors.  He gets better at figuring out there’s a tumor in an image over time, and he needs experience and examples to get better.  This might involve a mix of easy examples, difficult examples, and intermediate examples.  If we give really easy examples, he gets 100 percent right all the time and there’s nothing left to learn. ...

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