Training Course Development: “What We process, We Learn”
January 13, 2014 by Bill Rosenthal

Peter Doolittle, Professor of Educational Psychology at Virginia Tech, gave a TED Talk in November in which he said people can typically keep 4 things in working memory for 10-20 seconds. At the end of the 10-20 seconds, the content is either transferred to a more permanent type of memory or it’s lost. Because we are in the business of training course development, at Logical Operations we think a lot about how to get content transferred to more permanent memory.

That transfer has always seemed to me a little counter-intuitive. Information doesn’t seem to change when it goes from working memory to long-term memory, so the transition isn’t apparent when it happens. But I suppose it is changed in that it is processed. As Doolittle said in his TED Talk, “What we process, we learn.” This has practical implications for training course development, of course, and it’s why training consists of more than simply presenting learners with information. You need to present it in ways that make them process it.

As new models have created more satisfactory descriptions of memory, psychologists have come to favor the term “working memory” over “short-term memory.” The former is more descriptive than the latter, because it suggests, like Doolittle, that work is required to move something into long-term memory. How do you induce learners to do the work? First, don’t tell them it’s work. One of the tasks of training course development is to engage learners. That may be more difficult if you advertise learning as work. Exercising their minds can be packaged as amusement, even if it is work.

Here, for example, is an amusing mnemonic that’s useful if you train people to use Excel: “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.” The first letter of each word is the same as the first letter in the expression “parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, and subtract,” which is the order of operations in arithmetic. All electronic spreadsheets use that order because it’s built into arithmetic. Aunt Sally has lately come in for some criticism by educators, but the criticism only applies if you’re actually teaching arithmetic. If you’re involved in training course development for spreadsheet users, you don’t have to worry about teaching them to do arithmetic or chain calculations. You just need to give them a way to remember the order in which the spreadsheet applies the operations.

Generations of research has shown people can learn faster and more permanently with mnemonics than without them. They are most useful for lists and collections, but there are a lot of things in business training that can be rendered as lists and collections: steps in a process, types of operations, and data types, to name a few. In training course development, then, don’t worry that limericks, nonsense statements, or puzzles are undignified. Sometimes, they may mean the difference between learning and not learning

Mnemonics work because they create patterns, and we are pattern recognizing machines. But pattern recognition isn’t by any means the only way you can process information in working memory. For training course development, remember that any mental action you can perform on a piece of information constitutes processing. If you apply it to existing knowledge, that’s processing. If you ask a question about it, if you talk with someone about it, if you write it down – those are all processing as well.

The strategic part of training course development is about chunking the content, getting the chunks into an order optimized for learning, choosing the presentation media, and developing the transitions between chunks and units of chunks. The tactical part is the creation of exercises to induce learners to process a chunk so they retain it.