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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Answered Question on What successful techniques have you used to improve learner's retention?

I recently answered a question on the Instructional Design & E-Learning Professionals' Group of LinkedIn, and wanted to share that answer here on my blog. The question posed was:

What successful techniques have you used to improve learner's retention? Based on my experience, there's only so much information you can stuff into people's heads.
What's the best single tip you would give to help improve the quality and quantity of information that people retain after experiencing the training you've developed?

My single most important tip is this: Instead of training your students to perform the task from memory, teach them why and when to perform the task, and how to use support materials to succeed at the task.

If you are training your students to perform a life-and-death skill under strict time constraints, then of course they need to be able to perform the task from memory, on demand. An emergency room medical procedure would be one example. In that kind of situation, you want them to leave class knowing exactly how to perform the task without any kind of support materials. But that is a rare situation.

In most situations, your students will have time to perform the task. That is, they will have time to find and use reference materials to help them with the task.

Instead of overloading your students with the detailed steps of how to perform a task, perhaps you should consider teaching them how to use the reference and support materials to perform the task. Then, you can focus your training on:

  1. Why they need to learn to perform the task (motivation).
  2. Who needs to be involved in the task (roles and responsibilities).
  3. When they need to perform the task; where it fits into their workflow (context).
  4. Which steps are critical or especially difficult (roadblocks and "gotchas").
  5. Where to get supporting materials for the task (reference materials and job aids).

Of course you will still take your students through the detailed steps of performing the task. But instead of focusing on memorizing the how-to information, you'll focus on the information above. While demonstrating, you can reassure them that the "clicks, keystrokes, and actions" are all included in the support materials. After the student performs the task on-the-job a few times, with the help of the support materials, then it becomes committed to memory.

In my experience, this approach avoids information overload during class while enabling students to learn complex, long tasks. Does this agree or disagree with your experience? We want to hear from you in the comments!