UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


New research on speeding up the learning curve


We often take the learning curve for granted. After all, we’re painfully aware it’s there. And we’re pretty sure there’s nothing we can do to speed it up lest we affect the learning itself. But new research from Bradley Staats, assistant professor of operations, technology and innovation management, identifies three factors that increase the velocity at which we can master new information and skills without sacrificing quality.

“We all believe that the more we do the better we do it, but not all experience is equal,” he said.

“When we ‘unpack’ learning, we find that there are key areas in which we can focus our attention so we learn better, faster.”

 Dr. Cam Patterson (EMBA ’08), chief of cardiology at UNC Hospitals and associate dean for healthcare entrepreneurship, applied business operations strategy to treat heart-attack victims faster.  “As the practice of medicine relies increasingly on technological innovation, it is critically important that we master and teach the most challenging medical and surgical procedures in the shortest time possible,” Patterson said.

 “Staats’ research highlights innovations that can be adopted to improve patient care in the ‘real world,’ which is what really matters to a physician like me.”  Staats’ study, co-authored with Diwas Kc, assistant professor of information systems and operations management at Emory

Brad Staats Profile

University’s Goizueta Business School, focused on the learning rate of 71 cardiothoracic surgeons in more than 6,000 procedures they performed over 10 years. Given the significant and increasing costs of health care and the variation in outcomes, the study results have important implications for health-care management.

 But any manager can benefit from the findings.

 “The take-away for practitioners is to look beyond just cumulative experience toward more nuanced dimensions that can help employees learn—and improve outcomes—more quickly: variety, difficulty and recency,” he said. “There’s a lot of great work around checklists and the value of standardization. We can add to that information by creating varied assignments across functional areas, using more complex procedures and doing more in a tighter time period. All this creates better opportunities to learn faster and more effectively.”

 Key factors influencing learning according to professor Bradley Staats

  1. Variety: Doing the same task over and over seems like the fastest path to mastery, but the research of Staats and others shows that the opposite is often true. Repeating an inefficient process only makes that process more ingrained, and employees are less likely to see farther-reaching impacts. Additionally, varied tasks increase motivation because employees feel more engaged and can identify benefits across many tasks.
  2. Difficulty: Distilling tasks to their simplest form might appear to be the best way to help employees learn them. Yet Staats’ study found that difficult tasks actually created better learning. Though it slows the process, higher difficulty leads to more intense concentration and higher-level thinking. This helps employees make connections to other problems, which enhances motivation. Why? Because they feel their actions have a more significant impact on the organization.
  3. Recency: Letting too much time pass between tasks increases the likelihood of knowledge loss from lack of use. Yet leaving too little time can lead to employees feeling overwhelmed. Finding a happy medium allows time for reflection and deeper understanding so learning “sticks.” “Each dimension has a positive effect on performance,” Staats said, so we can benefit from focusing on just one area when learning new things. “But there’s definitely power in having all three.”