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How to Build Learning Faster, Better, Cheaper


Wed Aug 08 2018

How to Build Learning Faster, Better, Cheaper

Careful structuring of training sessions, captivating content, and attention to adult learning principles—taken together, those elements should result in superior training. But despite the care with which we attend to all of them, we sometimes don’t achieve the learner transformation we (and often the learners) desire.

We can lead the learners to our training but we cannot make them learn. How well learners acquire the declarative or procedural knowledge we package for them largely depends on what they do if and when they receive it.


When creating products and services for an organization, there is a saying: “Good, fast, cheap—choose two.” In other words, if you want it fast and good, it will cost you a lot. Is it fast and cheap you desire? Then the quality of the result will suffer. Are good and cheap your choices? Sorry, but you won’t get it quickly; we’ll do it when we can. A better way can give you all three. Six cognitive strategies have been shown to help speed up learning, make it stick more powerfully and longer, and actually cost less in time and energy for both teaching and learning.

What Are Cognitive Strategies?

We borrow both definitions and much of what follows from three author-researchers at the University of Illinois: Charles K. West, James A. Farmer, and Phillip M. Wolff (1991). Cognitive strategies are the mental methodologies we use as we study and learn. Unlike metacognitive skills, which are higher level, executive skills we deploy for any learning, our cognitive strategies form a database of thinking and learning packages that we can apply to specific learning situations. They enable us to organize a piece of learning so we can internalize and recall it more easily. Let’s apply a simple example right now. We’ll come back to its underlying foundation later. Examine the two Lincoln pennies depicted below.

How to Build Learning Faster, Better, Cheaper-Lincoln Pennies.png

In the coin of the left, Lincoln is facing right. In the coin on the right, he is facing left. Without peeking at a real Lincoln penny, which depiction is correct, A or B?

The correct answer is A. We’ve tried this test with thousands of American adult learners and, amazingly, 70 percent of them select B although they have seen the coin numerous times. They just weren’t paying attention. When we ask our audiences if they would bet $10,000 on their selection before we reveal the correct answer, we find very few takers.

So how do we ensure that we remember which direction Lincoln faces? Here’s a statement to help: “Our great president, Lincoln, always did right by the people.” Will you remember now? Probably. But what about the nickel, dime, and quarter? Which way do the presidents on those coins face? Here’s a cue: “All the other presidents were left behind.” Yes, they face left.


What’s the point of this coin discussion? It’s simple. You now probably will remember this set of not very useful facts for the rest of your life. Associating some arbitrary (hence hard to retain) facts with a mnemonic device that’s easy and familiar (“. . . did right by the people . . . were left behind”) is a powerful means for grasping and retaining information. It is part of a cognitive strategy that is good (learn and retain well), fast (you learned it quickly, didn’t you?), and cheap (two simple sentences—

not much mental storage and retrieval cost).

Six Types of Cognitive Strategies

Now that you have been introduced to cognitive strategy, let’s continue tuning your understanding. Cognitive strategies are collections of methods that help people learn. Good learners have a larger repertoire of these strategies and use them more naturally, frequently, and appropriately than do poor learners. They also obtain better results. Although there are many ways to organize and discuss cognitive strategies, we will adapt and present highlights to help you integrate cognitive strategy use for transforming your learners.

  1. Clustering: Different ways to arrange information for easier perception, understanding, retention, and recall.

  2. Spatial: Visual displays of information that lay out a large number of elements in a manner that is easy to comprehend and to retain or recall.

  3. Advance organizers: Organized, short introductory information packages that set an expectation or build a vision. They help the learner picture what’s to come and how it relates to prior knowledge or to content that has come before.

  4. Image-rich comparisons: Analogies, metaphors, and literal comparisons that build bridges between what the learner already knows and the new learning.

  5. Repetition: Activities that allow learners to rehearse content they have encountered and practice it in organized ways until it sticks in the mind.

  6. Memory aids: Groups of easy-to-remember letters, words, or images that help store and retrieve more complex material.

For more advice on how to build learning the sticks, join me September 10-11 in Toronto for the ATD Core 4 Conference.

Editos Note: The post is excerpted from Telling Ain't Training.


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