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Making Learning Stick

Bob Little 

December 11, 2015

So, having done the learning needs analysis, you’re going to design the learning program. You know what subjects you need to address – but how do you maximize the chances that the learners will learn what they need to learn?

“We use a number of techniques to make the learning we deliver memorable,” says Roger Mayo, director of independent consultancy MT&D Learning Solutions. “We want learning events to be a SUCCESS.”

According to Mayo, this means that the learning material should be:

  • Simple. Find the core of the idea that you want to get across. “Simple” is also about making the message compact. Mayo adds, “Another aspect of ‘simple’ is the way you present information to the audience. It needs to be presented in a memorable, easy-to-understand-remember-and-recall way.” Try to turn raw data into memorable information by the use of mnemonics (like “SUCCESS” here) to make connections for the learners. Proverbs – which are both compact and core – have memorably imparted useful wisdom for more than 2,500 years. Concise, insightful and often profound, proverbs have traveled across continents and cultures, yet they’ve never needed advertising campaigns to popularize them. Importantly, they can influence a lifetime of behavior.
  • Unexpected. Unexpected facts and surreal images make the material more memorable. For example, in the U.S.A., you’re 300 time more likely to be killed by a deer while you’re in your car than you are to be killed by a shark while you’re swimming offshore.
  • Concrete. People find it easier to relate to actual events, problems and solutions, rather than to abstract concepts.
  • Credible. Trainers, tutors and teachers can make their learning materials credible with the wealth of supporting material that they give to participants. They generate this supporting material as a result of their expertise, authority, analysis, and – increasingly – curation skills. All of this enhances the learning material’s “professionalism.”
  • Emotional. You need to engage learners’ hearts and minds – so that they can see that things can be done, that people can change how things are done at present, and that people do win through. Among the best used techniques here are to find and present quotes and success stories from other, related environments to show how others have succeeded – even against the odds.
  • Stories. Everyone loves stories. Stories have an excellent pedigree in passing on information from one generation to another when word-of-mouth was the only way to do it. In later times, Aesop’s Fables have been used to give guidance to people for many generations. There are also lessons to be learned from classic fairy tales. Basically, the story has been –and continues to be – at the heart of many cultures’ prose literature.

The ideas and facts that you need to convey to your learners should pack a great deal of meaning into a relatively brief message. This means using “flags” to tap into their existing memory terrain. Once you achieve this, the information you’ve imparted will stay with them.

Herman Ebbinghaus was a 19th century psychologist. He is famous for his work on memory retention, notably the “Forgetting Curve.” In his book, “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology,” he set out the findings of a study he had conducted into memory and recall. He tried to identify how quickly memory deteriorates if nothing is done to reinforce it.

Today, we recognize different forms of memory but Ebbinghaus’ research still has a great deal of value. He focused on the recall of simple lists of unrelated nonsense words, discovering that, even with this simple task, memory failed at an alarming rate. His research indicated that total recall  was achieved only at the time that the learning was acquired.

Then, within 20 minutes, 42 percent of the memorized list was lost. Within 24 hours, 67 percent of it had vanished and, a month later, 79 percent had been forgotten – leaving a meager 21 percent of the learning “retained.”

Consequently, Ebbinghaus proposed that people need to continuously review what they learn. He suggested that, with mnemonic techniques and repetition based on active recall – especially “spaced repetition” – an individual could reduce this loss. Later research suggested that, in addition to these two techniques, higher original learning is forgotten more slowly.

This argues for exercises and activities aimed at reviewing and revisiting the learning material. Moreover, repetition can be enhanced via group exercises that get the learners to capture or illustrate all the learning content they can remember. This helps them to help one another with their memory and understanding, and it also identifies any gaps in their knowledge that need closing.

Mayo comments, “Also, to combat this forgetting, it’s essential for learners to ensure that they get plenty of hands-on activities to supplement and reinforce their learning of the materials.

“On-the-job experiences allow employees to put into practice what they already know – and to experience the impact of their decision making. However, this needs to be supported by feedback on their performance, so that learners have the opportunity to improve. Bad habits are hard to break – so others shouldn’t wait to give the appropriate feedback on the learners’ performance.

“Follow-up, hands-on activities should be self-directed. In other words, the learners decide on the challenges with which they want to engage.”

Mayo says that another way to encourage memory retention is to get learners to talk to other stakeholders about their jobs and duties. He also advocates pairing employees as a useful way to learn, since the learners are actively involved in learning from the other partner.

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2 comments on “Making Learning Stick”:

  1. Gary Gruber wrote:

    60+ years ago I was introduced to a method of study called SQ3R, Survey, Question, Read, Review, Recite. It was part of a summer program prior to my entering university undergraduate studies. I continued to use that throughout my academic career that included those four years plus another seven in two different graduate schools. The review and feedback were critical components of that equation. I still use that learning strategy albeit more informally.
    As for letting people decide which challenges they want to take on, my concern is that many people tend to avoid those challenges they do not want to take on, perhaps out of fear of failing. Those may be the very challenges they need in order to succeed. The trick is to make the challenges less daunting, more appealing and interesting, thus lowering the threshold of the fear factor.

  2. Rebekah wrote:

    You probably ought to credit MADE TO STICK, since these are the Heath brothers’ ideas about stickiness.