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‘Skill fade’ is defined as ‘the decay of ability or adeptness over a period of non-use’ – in other words, it’s when your skills get rusty over time.
Skill fade is a topic that is talked about frequently around medical and army personnel where a career break – perhaps to have children or work as a volunteer – can affect how competent a person is at performing their life or death job when they return to work.
Although, as a freelance trainer, your role may not be a matter of life or death, skill fade can be a very real concern, especially if you’ve taken a period of maternity leave, recently changed careers or you’re coming back to training after a period in industry. Often you may be brought into a company to help its employees address this very matter but skill fade can affect trainers too.
Research would suggest that there are some tasks, like riding a bike or swimming, that, once learned, are hard to forget. More complicated, less predictable tasks, such as using algebra to solve a mathematic equation, are much easier to forget unless you use algebra on a daily basis.
In other words, if you don’t use your knowledge, you lose it.
Factors that affect skill fade
Studies show that various factors affect whether or not we experience skill fade. The interval between learning and having to recall your knowledge is crucial, so the longer the period of non-use, the greater the chances that you’ll forget.
Overlearning can be a problem too. This is when you take your knowledge beyond competency, reviewing the same information over and over again, instead of learning something new that adds a new dimension to your existing knowledge. With overlearning, people tend to either become complacent about what they know, eventually missing important details, or they become so caught up in achieving perfection that it can cause high levels of anxiety and a feeling of always falling short.
Other factors include the type of task you’re trying to repeat, what you excel at, how you learn, and the conditions of your memory retrieval. For example, many people are better at recalling knowledge within a specific context or when the knowledge was gained in a real-life scenario. This is why practical training and on-the-job tuition can be more effective than lectures and classroom learning for many trainees.
It’s also interesting to note that there is a growing hypothesis that computers and automation are speeding up skill fade, letting us become passive observers instead of active participants. Pilots have made fatal mistakes when the autopilot has disengaged; doctors have been known to miss crucial information by relying on diagnosis software; and what of athletes who’s heart monitors tell them they’re fine to carry on training when their body is telling them otherwise?
For trainers, automation may have less dramatic consequences but, from relying on the spell checker to proof your training materials to giving trainees access to e-learning materials that require minimal teaching input, your attempts to streamline your workload could be negatively affecting your skills and knowledge.
Combating skill fade
A study into skill fade among doctors found that skills decline over a period of non-use of six to 18 months. However, people were better able to retain their knowledge when they kept in touch with their peers, stayed aware of developments in their profession, and had a high level of learning and proficiency prior to their career break.
It may be that you have certain skills that you are unlikely to use in the future – perhaps a topic you no longer want to cover in your training or a training technique you no longer find useful. If that’s the case, you may deliberately choose to let those redundant skills fade so that you can focus your energies on learning new skills or keeping your more important skills current.
If you are worried that some of your existing skills are becoming rusty, it’s a good idea to pinpoint which ones and re-engage with them. Try creating some flashcards about your knowledge or revisiting your own training notes, as repetition is the best way to stop a skill from fading. Even simple steps such as printing and reading your training workbooks out loud instead of relying on the spellchecker for coherence or offering trainees a VIP one-to-one mentoring session could help you keep your skills up-to-date and your training approach fresh.