Like much of human performance, skill retention has conflicting axioms. Everyone knows that skills degrade over time, and they know that there are some things you never forget how to do, such as riding a bike. Both axioms cannot be absolutely true, so which is correct?
Recent research into skill retention ("Retention of Skilled Search After Nine Years," N.J. Cooke, F.T. Durso, and R.W. Schvaneveldt, Human Factors, 1994, 36(4), 597-605) indicates the circumstances under which skills do not significantly degrade over time. The study examined the performance of subjects who had mastered a visual search task nine years earlier. Only a slight degradation was seen in those skills that had been totally mastered, or learned to the point of automaticity. (Automaticity is when a task has been so extensively learned that mental workload is reserved for the task and the task can be done with little conscious effort.) What degradation that does occur appears to happen over the first 30 days of non-use of the skill.
The research has significant implications for training chemical process plant operators. Attaining the level of automaticity should reduce the need for frequent refresher training. It would allow operators to assist on previously qualified jobs even after long periods on a different job and with minimal retraining. A negative implication is the potential for negative transfer of training, as the research indicates that "mastered" tasks will not be forgotten with time.
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