Where a training topic sits on the boring to exciting continuum lies in the mind of the learner. For example, the latest tools and techniques in woodworking would have been of great interest to my father-in-law who was a handyman of note; however dressmaking as a training topic would have held little interest for him.
In our personal lives, we generally get to choose the training we do. In our business life, we have some choice but not complete choice. So some of the training we receive is going to be on a topic we do not necessarily enjoy. Compliance topics tend to fall into this category.
As a trainer or instructional designer in an organisation, this means that much of the effort we put into individuals learning the fundamentals of our business and what is required to keep our risks low is going to be targeted at a disinterested audience.
Whilst it is the responsibility of the learner to learn, it is the accountability of the trainer or instructional designer to design training which overcomes any disinterest in the topic and ensures that learning occurs.
So how do we overcome the perception of a topic as boring when designing training?
How memory works
A good starting point in understanding how to go about this is to recall how memory works in the brain.
When we see an image or text or hear a sound, that image is held in Sensory Memory for milliseconds.
Information is passed from the sensory memory, encoded, and stored in short-term memory via the process of attention (selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring the rest). We effectively filter the stimuli we receive to only those which are of interest at any given time. Some encoding occurs automatically:
- Personal experiences
- Information of high interest
- Some types of basic learning (motor skills)
Most encoding, however, requires thought and practice. Short-term memories are encoded, then stored as long-term memories through the process of consolidation, involving rehearsal and meaningful association.
We usually use maintenance rehearsal (repeating things over and over) to hold information in short term memory. Maintenance rehearsal is not terribly effective for encoding into long term memory, however. Elaborative rehearsal, where we are forced to or choose to organise, think about, and link new material to existing memories is more effective. The more associations we build, the more cues we also have for retrieval. The more deeply we process the information, the better is our ability to recall and retrieve information.
Long-term memory comprises:
- Episodic memories
- Semantic memories
- Procedural memories
Episodic memory comprises life experiences and specific events in time in a serial form. Episodic memory is the memory of autobiographical events, times, places, associated emotions and other contextual knowledge that can be explicitly stated.
Semantic memory is a more structured record of facts, meanings, concepts and knowledge about the external world that we have acquired. It refers to general factual knowledge, shared with others and is independent of personal experience and the context of the learning experience.
Procedural memory is the unconscious memory of skills and how to do things, particularly the use of objects or movements of the body, such as swinging a racket or playing a musical instrument.
Importance for instructional design
What this means for instructional design is that whether we want people to change their behaviours or just remember facts, we have to engage them in thinking about and organising the new information and link it to existing experiences for them to have a good chance of storing the information in long term memory and then retrieving it.
If we want people to retrieve information about topics in which they are disinterested, engaging people in the aforementioned elaborative rehearsal becomes doubly important.
An additional fact worth recalling is that short term memory has a capacity limit of around seven plus or minus two pieces of information at any given time. The size of the pieces of information depends on the type of information e.g. words, numbers, sounds and the existing amount of information already held in long term memory. For example, short term memory can hold a lot more information consisting of new words of an already understood language compared with a language which is new.
This means that we need to design training which:
- Relates to people’s previous experiences
- Provides, where possible, an experience which generates emotions associated with the information we want people to retain
- Makes people think about the information we want them to retain and a context in which to retrieve it
- Chunks the training, taking into account the existing long term memories of the people being trained
- Layers learning to build from one experience to another
Effective and efficient management of information requires that people save their records under a common classification scheme using common naming conventions across an organisation.
Training a group of people who are not records management professionals about a business classification scheme and how they should use it in their daily work is not an easy task. Business classification schemes hold little interest for people outside the records management profession. The task of filing documents in a manner consistent with the business classification scheme is seen as an extra task when compared with my current habit of filing them in a folder structure that suits me. Even if we know the learning outcomes are that people can more easily find information and that the records are retained for an appropriate period of time, people believe they are being forced to learn something of no interest and no benefit to them.
Consider two different approaches to training people about a business classification scheme.
A presenter displays a slide with an image showing in detail how the business classification is structured and starts by saying something along the lines of:
- “A Business Classification Scheme is a conceptual representation of an organisation’s business. It describes an organisation’s business functions, activities and transactions, and the relationships between them. Functions are the largest units of business activity. They are the major responsibilities that are managed by an organisation to fulfil its mission or mandate, and its responsibilities to its stakeholders. Activities are the major tasks performed to accomplish each function. Transactions are minor tasks. Transactions are used when the level of task described at the activity level comprises a range of smaller activities”.
The presentation continues in this vein, being more of a lecture than a learning experience.
Given what we know about how memory works, there are several things wrong with this approach:
- It in no way taps into existing experiences
- There are four new terms introduced and no attempt to chunk the learning of the concepts
- There is no requirement to think or organise information about the new concepts
- The only emotional experience is likely to be one of boredom.
Consider a different approach where the training is chunked to at first introduce the term “Business Classification Scheme”. Consider a design where people are told that they have experiences with business classification schemes every day and are given a few examples such as the Dewey classification system used by libraries. They are then asked to think of classification schemes they use, with the facilitator prompting the participants to think of examples such as their record collection classified by year or by album name or by music genre or by artist. Then to consider how difficult it would be to find a specific piece of music when using someone else’s classification. Consider if they were asked to work in teams to develop a classification that everyone could use and share. What if we went further and made it fun by making it competitive and awarding points for the bets design. What if that competition was part of an ongoing competition covering all of the training?
We now have a piece of training which is related to previous experiences (music collections), has an emotional connection (fun/competitive), has been chunked down to just the concept of classification and has set a platform for the next chunk of learning, for example, about the actual business classification scheme structure to be layered on top of an existing experience.
Creating training which is specifically designed to take advantage of how the brain encodes, stores and retrieves information is not trivial, however, in my experience it is rewarding by virtue of:
- Much higher levels of recall of information
- Participants’ ability to think about concepts and extrapolate from what they have learned when confronted with new circumstances
- Increased likelihood that the learning is transferred to the workplace
- Higher levels of satisfaction with the learning experience resulting in positive word of mouth leading to higher attendance rates.