ATD Blog

Better Science for Better Learning: Structured Outlines Improve Remembering

Friday, December 6, 2019

Structured lists are easier to remember.

Try this thought experiment. Glance through these series then follow the instructions below.

Series 1: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10
Series 2: Benefits, Costs, Growth, Liquidity, Risk

Now (don’t look back!) close your eyes and try reciting each series out loud.

How did it go? Chances are, you had no problem remembering the first series, which was structured as a logical progression of even numbers. But you probably muffed the second series, which appeared to be a jumble of financial terms. It’s easy to imagine a financial essay with those terms forming its headings. No wonder business writing is opaque! As an instructional writer, you must do better than this.

Start with an outline whose primary headings form a structured progression.

Write an outline, as you usually do, but this time write each primary heading as a full sentence. (I’ve done so in this blog entry.) Make your primary headings progress from one to the next in logical order. Imagine that each heading is a domino standing on end, poised to fall forward and strike the next domino in a chain reaction that ripples through your entire series of headings.

Let’s start with headings that are not written to reveal a progression. Read it through then we’ll convert these headings into dominoes.

I. Investment Benefits
A. Costs
B. Growth
C. Liquidity

II. Risks
A. . . . and so forth


That’s not a bad outline. It groups ideas sensibly and resembles something you may see in an investment prospectus. But it’s not a good outline for learning! Flesh this out for learners and you’ll produce a clear, well-organized essay that floats in the water like a dead fish.

Let’s bring it to life, starting with the primary headings. Instead of making them traditional topic titles, turn them into short sentences, each having a subject and a predicate. Here’s what that looks like:

I. Your investment in XYZ Securities brings three benefits.

II. However, even with these benefits, your investment carries the usual risks.

One domino topples onto another, the connection made explicit by phrases like, “However, even with these benefits . . .” It takes extra thought to build your connections while writing an outline, but it’s easier to do now than when you’re trying to lay down your prose.

Add secondary headings that are structured the same way.

Next, we use the same routine with the subheadings: Write short connecting sentences instead of topic titles. These subheadings should also topple like dominoes.


I. Your investment in XYZ Securities brings three benefits.
A. It doesn’t deplete your working capital up front.
B. After saving you money up front, it continues to work for you by providing steady growth over time.
C. And when your investment has grown, you can liquidate it and apply the capital gains to your business.

II. However, even with these benefits, your investment carries the usual risks.
A. . . . and so forth

Are your sentences too wordy? If they are, trim them. You can drop the final periods to conform with common heading convention if your organization’s style police insists, but you should retain the sentence structure that makes each point clear. Your result will look like this:

I. XYZ brings three benefits.
A. It preserves working capital.
B. It grows over time.
C. It can be liquidated on demand.

II. These benefits bring risks.
A. . . . and so forth

You’ve built a structure that flows clearly and logically. The dominos all topple from one to the next. The hardest part of your work is done.

Structured headings ease both writing and remembering.

Trust me: From here, your writing will flow quickly without triggering writer’s block. After all, you’ve already figured out not only main points but also how they fit together. And you can see exactly how to write the transition sentences that can otherwise be so difficult.

But you’re not the only beneficiary of this best practice. Take a moment to read down the headings in this blog entry. Easy to remember? Your learners will immediately grasp what you have written. Go ahead and try it!

About the Author

Douglas Lieberman offers short-term consulting and targeted problem solving for difficult challenges in skill building and behavior change. For more than a decade he was a member of IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning, where he led the award-winning, patent pending Adaptive Learner approach to innovative thinking, and he created the instructional standards for IBM Watson employees’ required online training in artificial intelligence. Now he works with IBM’s P-Tech initiative, bringing technical training to underserved populations around the world.

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