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A trivial look at learning

Neil Lasher of Trainer1 reveals a fascination with the way people learn and looks at the associations we use in
e-learning to create the hooks for recall.

Did you know that if you took the national debt of the USA (about $7tr) and converted it to one dollar bills, then placed them one on top of another, the resulting pile would reach from Capitol Hill in Washington DC to the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon and back again? And, speaking of the moon, do you know why the moon often looks orange when it rises or sets?

I sat recently and tried to test the calculation alluded to above. To my dismay the calculator in my all singing and dancing phone did not have enough digits. To make it more complicated, there are a different number of zeros in US and UK trillions! I just accepted it as true and committed it to memory.

For those of you who have met me or attended a training course I have facilitated, you will know of my fascination with research into the way we learn and the constant challenges of teaching styles. Whatever styles we choose, at the end of the day we are all searching for the ultimate set of learning hooks to implant our content into the mind of the trainee.

To start we need to identify the differences between remembering and learning. To remember is the ability to recall information at will. To have learned is the ability to make use of this information once it has been recalled (conscious competency) or making use without the thought (unconscious competency), the highest of the four steps of learning competencies.

In this article I wish to look at the associations we use in e-learning to create these hooks for recall and to look at what is actually remembered. What methods can we use that will make a difference so that change can take place? The best we can possibly hope for is conscious competency at the end of a training course. It is experience that will move the user to the higher level and we cannot implant experience.

One of the common methods in use for recall is repetition. Tell them, show them, get them to do it and then ask them questions. This works particularly well in language training. It has been employed in many e-learning courses, particularly low cost generic software training. It creates a hook by creating familiarity but unless the user continues to use what they have seen it is quickly forgotten. There is no long term hook for recall.

It has often been mentioned that if we could make a pop song out of 'A' Level history then every teenager would pass with honours. If you have teenage children you will be aware that they have every word of every top song in their heads - even if the song seems totally unintelligible for you. Just like the kids of today we were no different. Take the classic songs of your youth and the words are readily available. This type of repetition appears to have no long term hook but works. Why?

The answer is relatively simple. We really enjoyed the content and often shared what we had learned with others. However, ask a question about the words and you have to sing the whole song from the beginning! How many Magpies for 'secret never to be told'? (One for sorrow, two for joy.....)

Does this mean that if we can make the content enjoyable and repeat it many times the trainee will commit it to long term memory just like the words of those songs? I can't imagine for one moment getting the top executives of the biggest banks in the world singing fun benign songs about anti-money laundering, so maybe there is a flaw in my basic theory.

As trainers we seem to have turned to other hooks to achieve our goals. The idea of computer delivered training - disguise it under another name if you must, e-learning, blended, TBT and so on - to some is a delivery system where we must present games. The computer symbolises a tool just for that purpose, a machine for racing cars or killing trolls, getting a frog across a busy road etc. With caution to the wind, computer programmers have created a plethora of different games for inclusion in e-learning.

Are we using these addictive games as a form of repetition? Are the trainees actually committing the content to long term memory or are they just remembering how to play the game? These are serious questions for which it is probably too early to answer. In a few years we will look back with hindsight.

An alternative hook and one I like to use is to add trivia.

Give someone an inane piece of useless information and most will repeat it to another. Trivia is fun. It contains ridiculous facts but creates a hook that most appear to commit to long term memory. There are some similarities to songs here: it is enjoyable and shared with others. It also builds an association similar to a well designed picture. This is best for recall.

Did you know that if you took the bristles out of a two inch paintbrush and laid them end to end they would stretch over a mile? This is pretty useless item of information - unless you are training in the commercial paintbrush industry.

I will be surprised if you do not repeat the information in the opening paragraph of this article. A pile of money so big it reaches the moon and back is a great way to learn the size of the national debt of the USA, which incidentally increases by $1.3bn every day. If you care to try to check the figures, $7tr is a seven with 12 zeros in the USA; in Europe a trillion has 15 zeros. This is another small snippet of trivia that you may remember.

So what of our banking executive? How do we find trivia to introduce to our anti-money laundering course? Look closely at any subject with a slightly different pair of eyes and you can find information often referred to as trivia. A board game manufacturer made one of the most successful games ever, just using trivia: there is hardly an adult who has not heard of the game Trivial Pursuit.

Everyone in the financial industry - governed by compliancy rules throughout the financial world - must learn and prove competency about anti money laundering, aimed at stopping the flow of cash to terrorism and drug cartels. Put the huge volume of this problem into perspective using trivia without trivialising the content. The amount of money laundered in the world each year is greater than that generated in the world's automobile industry. That's right: more money changes hands for drugs than cars.

Did you know that before the US government changed their money to the new style notes, more than 90 per cent of US$20 bills contained trace cocaine when tested?

As you can see, and as I am sure you will repeat, items of trivia can create a powerful hook for learning. Short, sharp, and sometimes silly facts provide our brain with the fun and interest we require to stay connected to the training. We link these facts to other parts of the content in the same way we would use well placed and highly memorable graphics. Once the association is made, the picture or the trivia sparks the link to the content that may have been mundane without it. Thus the hook is made and longer term memory committed.

The last e-course created by us in this manner created feedback complaining the course was too short. A reflection of how it was enjoyed? A financial blended classroom based course I have been running five times a year with an associate since 1998, which uses computers for the delivery of exercise-based assignments throughout the course, uses many techniques including the use of trivia to teach what could be a boring subject. There is an 18 month waiting list for this four day course within the corporation who provides it, mostly from recommendation. Delegates leaving often add to their feedback that they are surprised how fun such a boring subject could be and how they are looking forward to using what they have learned.

The approach and use of alternative hooks for learning objects in my opinion has to be better than driving a car around a race track, shooting down sprites or trying to get a frog to cross a road.

To finish: an illuminating thought, just in case you wondered...

The full moon sometimes looks orange when it rises and sets because the light has to travel through more of the atmosphere than when the moon is high in the sky. The blue light waves scatter but the red light waves make it through.

I hope that the content we all create in the future contains sufficient red light waves.

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© 2004 Trainer1. Reproduced with permission. Any opinions or views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Training Reference.

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