Do memory aids and systems of coding really help learners to recall information?

lockupMemory aids and systems of coding help learners to recall information when they need it. Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” that is the sixth of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence. This one is about memory aids and systems of coding.

Rote learning is not a very efficient way of remembering things. If you can recall having difficulty in learning lists of facts, dates or foreign language vocabulary at school then you are bound to agree. Memory aids take various forms; some use images, some use words in sentences or rhymes, some use symbols. Their purpose is to prompt a learner with cues to direct them to information they need to remember usually in order to complete a task or pass a test of knowledge.

Trainers love them because they help learners to recall important information when they need it. They are most effective when learners need to recall unorganised names and procedural data, and the words and images they use don’t need to relate conceptually to the context. In the short-term we might recall 5, 6 or 7 unrelated items like digits or letters with relative ease when they are presented to us one at a time. However, we can dramatically improve recall by using a strategy such as associating items in clusters and through practice.

Many memory aids are fun and witty, for example “Rub Your Belly With Grease” is an easy way to remember the order of signals to show the distance between ships in port – Red (20 yards), Yellow (40 yards), Blue (60 yards), White (80 yards), Green (100 yards). Memory aids can thus add an entertainment factor to learning that might otherwise be dull.

When learners struggle to remember things, they often try to invent their own way of making that recall easier. The aid does not have to be perfect or widely understood, for example I remember as a student using SPICE as a device for remembering Piaget’s theory of child development. The initial letters of Sensorimotor, Pre-conceptual, Intuitive, Concrete operations, Formal operations actually spells SPICF and not SPICE, but the memory aid worked for me and that was all that mattered.

Some mnemonics are easier to remember than others, for example I can recall “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” and relate it to notes on the musical stave; and “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” is an easy way for me to recall the points of the compass in clockwise order. “I made a glass alligator” is easy enough to recall Pi to 5 decimal places, but if I move on to nine decimal places the mnemonic may become easy to confuse for example I might invent “I take a train Saturdays at eleven before the night” but then forget what the time of the train or the day of the week in my example.

“Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced, beheaded, survived” reminds me of the fate of the wives of King Henry VIII, but recalling their names in the same order is a little more tricky:

“Kate an’ Anne an’ Jane an’ Anne an’ Kate (again, again!)” can work as long as your memory doesn’t play tricks and return, “Anne an’ Kate an’ Ann an’ Jane an’ Kate an’ Ann again again” which may give you too many wives and in the wrong order. So learners must first memorise the cues and prompts and their structure and sequence, and then associate each with prompts, linking it with information they have already memorised.

Finally, a truism within the truism is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so we might assume a visual memory aid to be more effective than figures, symbols or words alone to support some thinking skills.

So the question is, “What evidence do we have to really prove the usefulness of memory aids?  Do they enlighten or do they confuse? Are they employed by trainers and teachers because of their fitness for purpose or are they simply confections that delight them and an excuse for skimping on instruction?” Please use the form below if you wish to comment.

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Readability – myth or science?

Woman - Business, Teacher, Lawyer, Student, EtcYou can test the readability of instructional material and judge how well it will match learners’ levels of literacy. Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” here is the fifth of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

In this instance I’m going to ask you to look critically at readability scoring. Sometimes it is done electronically, as with the readability rating that is built into Microsoft Word. Sometimes it is measured using instruments such as the FOG Index, on which the latter is based. Sometimes it is done by applying simple intuition and some insight into the characteristics of the target audience. However it is done, it is based upon the belief that there is some science behind it – that you can in fact test the readability of instructional material and judge how well it will match learners’ levels of literacy.  But is that true or is it an example of pseudo-science that is often prevalent in the industry of learning and development?

Let’s make two assertions:

Readability is calculated through a formula that predicts how well people of varying reading ability can recall text they have read or heard.

Readability can predict how much difficulty learners will have in reading or listening to training materials.

Are these two absolute facts, or are they superstitions?

We might dispute whether a readability score is any use at all in predicting understanding for these reasons:

  • It gives only a rough estimate of difficulty.
  • It does not lend itself very well to text that is not in sentences such as tables and figures, which you often find in technical training, and it cannot take account of supporting graphics.
  • It cannot take account of how a text will be used, for example, whether it has to be studied and remembered, or referred to while doing a task.
  • It does not factor into its calculation the learners’ prior knowledge and experience; a learner with a low level of ability in reading can make sense of a text if they already know much about the subject matter and can apply it to comprehend new material.

It would compromise the integrity of the message if you allowed a formula to dictate the content of instructional writing. There are too many other issues to consider, for example whether text is performance-centred (“how to…”) or conceptual and subject-centred (“all about…”).  It is better to use “How to…” text in user manuals. Subject-centred text may cover everything a learner wishes to know about the topic, but is likely to stop short of a stepwise series of actions to conduct. The learners may have to work out for themselves what to do. It is a paradox that technical manuals and user guides are often written in the style of subject-centred text.

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Can students take control of their own learning?

channel surfingIt is a good idea to put students in control of their own learning, and they are capable of accepting that control.

Under the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid,” this is the third of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

Although some teachers and trainers find it hard to surrender control, many think it is a good idea to put students in control of their own learning. They are also convinced that learners are capable of accepting that control and personal accountability for what they accomplish in learning.

Is this belief true? It seems to be based on the assumption that learners achieve significantly better results when they feel they have some control over the key events in their learning, than when they perceive control to be in the hands of others.

When they have achieved a “pass” in their learning, learners may believe it is because they are clever enough, worked hard, the task was easy for them or they were lucky when they were set questions or challenges that suited them.

If learners can significantly control their learning, then they can manipulate that combination of ability, effort and demand, and “make their own luck” so that the likelihood of success is increased.

Slow and disadvantaged learners are most likely to blame others for their failures, and they may not give themselves full credit for their own successes.

When learners are successful, they are more likely to see themselves as more accountable than when they fail.

Whether learners believe their successes and failures to be due to themselves or other people depends on various factors and circumstances. Learning designers and facilitators can alter situations to change that perception of who is responsible.

A key element to strengthen personal accountability is feedback. When feedback dwells on the quality of performance and shows learners, especially slower ones how to improve it, they begin to accept that they are responsible for their own performance and learning.

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Do you believe in situated learning?

If you separate facts and concepts from the context in which they will use them, learners will simply forget them.

Under the title “What’s been did and man reads bookwhat’s been hid,” here is the second of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

This is another simple idea; that if knowledge is set in a relevant context then a person will be motivated to learn it in order to use it in the performance of a task skilfully in the real world.

It is quite common to hear managers say, “We trained them and they passed a test; how is it possible for them to get things so badly wrong?”

Being able to demonstrate immediate recall of taught facts and concepts is not the same thing as being able to use those facts and apply those concepts when you need them in a real-world situation.

When you frame something as a learning objective instead of a performance objective, then it remains just another learning activity, divorced from the accomplishment of useful and practical tasks. To ensure its usefulness, knowledge should not be taught as an abstract thing to be activated on some vague and disconnected occasion in the future. Knowledge when learned must be focused or “situated” at the heart of some concrete action or experience.

When I think of “experience” I include the physical circumstances which a person learner will use what they learn – where they are and what they are about to do – as well as the cognitive and physical tasks they will perform when they are in that environment.

Instruction has to get as close as possible to replicating the same situations – the authentic operations, genuine tools and real equipment – as the real-world practical experience. The closer it is to a specific task-related performance in terms of the standard, quality, completeness and authenticity it demands, the greater is the effectiveness of instruction.

Situated teaching puts the trainer in the role of a master practitioner, modelling performance to a necessary standard, recognising the extent of learners’ mastery as they practise, and interactively guiding them towards competence though coaching and feedback.

Instruction should take a learner only as far as the level of competence they need in the practical situation. For example a first-aider would not need to know as much about respiration as a doctor in a hospital, so the provision of instruction has to fit the expected condition and standards of performance.

In many cases, we have to think of reaching mastery through a series of successive approximations to the genuine whole performance with all of its internal and external conditions. The way of presenting a task may vary according to the prior knowledge of the learner. In some instances it may be enough to provide text or symbolic representations, but for novices it might be necessary to immerse them in a high fidelity simulation of the practical situation.

Computer-simulations of a situated practice environment can be effective, and in some cases students who have practised hard on a computer can accelerate their learning to match the performance of technicians with years of experience on-the-job.

When their learning is “situated”, learners may assess their own and others’ performance, but there are issues attending this approach. We’ll raise those issues when we look at truisms 3 (It is a good idea to put students in control of their own learning, and they are capable of accepting that control) and 10 (Learners who work together, and support and challenge one another, learn more than those who learn in isolation.)

Finally there is the question of attrition – the belief that knowledge decays rapidly unless you use it. Is that true or is it a widespread misconception?

I’m inviting you to support any of the statements above with a book reference, a personal experience or a case study, or contradict them by using similar sources of evidence. Please use the form below if you wish to comment.

Do people really learn more by doing than by watching and/or listening?

Deep thoughts                   Recently I posted an item with the title “What’s been did and what’s been hid.” Here is the first of 12 truisms that have influenced how I have been doing my work as a learning and performance consultant over a number of years. I hope you will feel free to support it with a book reference, a personal experience, and example or a case study; otherwise knock it down using similar sources of evidence.

That people learn more by doing than by watching and/or listening is top of the list, because it is the belief that has most influenced the strategies and designs of tools and materials for learning that have occupied my time.

The idea is a very simple one – learners need to rehearse under a range of conditions that are typical of how they will use what they are learning.  Effective instruction must provide regular and frequent opportunities to try out and apply new behaviours. Little and often are the watchwords for practice, and there is incontestable proof that practice makes perfect.

It is best to turn the learner’s attention to a different practice or drill before they repeat identical practice or a similar task. Then their performance will be thoughtful and unlikely to become robotic or superstitious.

If you emphasise key points during practice, then learners are most likely to attend to these key points and remember them.

Specific forensic and observational feedback helps learners to identify any deficit in their performance, and so correct it. However we’ll put feedback itself under the microscope when we look at truism number 8, because not all feedback is necessarily constructive.

If a task is complex, it needs more practice to master it. You should break down a very complex task into separate steps or stages and practise them by themselves first and recombine them later.

When we come to consider truism number 6 we may acknowledge that memory aids and systems of coding help learners to recall information when they need it and so it may be counter-productive to memorise lists or facts when a better learning strategy is to group and code them so they become implicit.

Next on the list of 12 is the matter of situated learning, and I’ll ask you to support or challenge the belief that if you separate facts and concepts from the context in which they will use them, learners will simply forget them.

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What’s bin did and what’s been hid

15757740526_e7ae680f9f_bI was never a great fan of the music of the folk singer Donovan, but I admired him for coming up with one of the most eye-catching titles of all time for a debut album. I’ve borrowed it as the title for this blog.

It directs me towards practices and prejudices I’ve met in my work in learning and development. In the autumn of my career I might start to believe I know all the answers. Certainly I hold some strong beliefs. I’m ready to test whether they are sound, empirical observations supported by unchallengeable evidence-based research, or a Father-knows-best vanity based upon personal preferences, prejudices and flaky false assumptions.

Please let show you 12 core beliefs upon which I base my practice as a learning, development and performance consultant. I’ll invite you to support each one or shoot it down in flames.

This is not a seasonal “Oh no it isn’t; Oh yes it is” pantomime script. I hope it will be useful to you as well as to me, although it’s based on two assumptions that may themselves be worthy of challenging:

  1. none of us is smarter than all of us
  2. you care a damn

…and what happens next may prove neither of these to be true!

Here are the beliefs:

  1. People learn more by doing than by watching and/or listening
  2. People dismiss or forget facts and concepts unless they learn them in a meaningful context that relates to their own needs and interests
  3. It is a good idea to put students in control of their own learning, and they are capable of accepting that control
  4. If you enhance simple text in books, hand-outs and manuals by adding a structure, aids to navigation, summaries, examples and diagrams, then people will find it easier to learn, will make more sense of it and remember it for longer
  5. It is entirely possible to test the readability of instructional material and judge how well it will match learners’ levels of literacy
  6. Memory aids and systems of coding help learners to recall information when they need it
  7. Adults can learn to listen and to concentrate better; these are not innate skills and it’s not too late even if they escaped you in early childhood
  8. When you give learners feedback it improves their self-belief and increases their desire to learn
  9. Assessment is a really crucial part of learning and should be a mirroring of real life performance as far as possible
  10. Learners who work together, and support and challenge one another, learn more than those who learn in isolation
  11. It is ever possible to interest people in taking up new methods and media in learning
  12. Instructional objectives have great practical use and come from a process known as “needs analysis”

There you have in summary 12 truisms on what could become a very long list. As I unpack each one, I hope you will knock it down or build it up with book references, personal experiences or case studies. I’d also like to know what beliefs drive others so I can grow my list of what’s been did and what’s been hid.

Footnote:

This is a reprint of a blog I published in the Autumn. I’ll be following it up once a week over the next few months with a sequence of items to build on the ideas in this introduction. The first will follow immediately.

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Sabbatical

My work has taken me around the world. I’ve written for a number of text books, contributed to some ground-breaking projects including the game-changing More Than Blended Learning – which is about to soar http://morethanblended.com/about/ – and I’ve fended off diabetes. I am not yet ready to retire, but some personal, occupational and aspirational objectives need my full attention, and so I’ve decided to take a sabbatical.
I’ll be writing a guide and some tools on Facilitating 21st Century Learning; I’ll finish the words and music for my long-neglected stage play (a kind of musical disaster-movie), I’ll take control over my health, and I’ll finalise a mobile app that will guide creators of job aids.
During this period I will be accepting short assignments such as workshops, mentoring or consultancy. I can still be reached through Onlignment where the work will continue to flourish in the ever capable hands of Barry, Clive and Eugenie.
Thank you to everyone around the world with whom I’ve been privileged to work in the past 42 years, and who have been sending me good wishes. I am looking forward to working with you again in the next phase.

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