processI’ve been doing some reading on information processing and it has got me to thinking….

…processing information, as it were.

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Recently a client was sharing some of their post-implementation findings of their current training delivery system and they determined that it had some inefficiencies. Most notably, the information wasn’t “sticky.” Since the current system consisted of intensive off-site two-day training marathons that end with a pat on the back and a “Go forth and do as you have been taught” send-off, it’s not surprising that the info dump didn’t result in behavior change. We are replacing this model with a series of shorter training events over a two- to six-week regimen (depending on the core content) delivered in short bursts with lots of opportunities for practice in between.

I think things will improve, but it does make me wonder what makes training stick. We know that the human brain, when presented with random bits of information has a very limited capacity to recall it. But we also know that complex information presented in a meaningful way can be retained indefinitely. Here’s an example I’ve used before:

Anyone remember this game? OK, how many times did you try it? And how far did you get?

But if I play those same four tones in this order, suddenly you are not only able to play all of them in the correct order with no mistakes, but you likely already know them from memory. And even if you can’t duplicate them flawlessly, you know exactly when you’ve made a mistake the moment you made it.

Why the difference?

I believe it relates to our inherent ability to recognize and create patterns. We do not deal well with randomness, even in small doses, but are able to handle complex order very well. That being said, here are some of my “random” thoughts on information processing theory.

We are already aware of this categorical breakdown of the types of memory:


I believe these categories are, at best, moderately helpful. First of all, I believe that selective attention limits what is in our “sensory memory.” Here’s evidence that even when we are looking directly at something, there are sensory stimuli that never register. By contrast, in talking with athletes about games they have played, they are often able to remember, weeks later, the exact moves they made during a game. Somehow, they stored a complex, rich body of information in long-term memory without a lot of expended effort. This means that when people are attending to something with a great deal of concentration, there are stimuli that never cross the awareness threshold and enter sensory memory. Meanwhile other stimuli pass directly through sensory and working memory and go straight to long-term memory, often effortlessly and without concentration at all.

Why the difference? I believe it relates to pattern and structure. The visual stimuli in the first experiment did not fit the pattern of events that we were attending to, so we never even saw it in the first place. This is similar to those trips in the car where we knew we were driving, but can’t recall anything of the journey on arrival. By the same token, athletic performance fits within a pattern and even complex interactions in a game can be recalled flawlessly, often with little effort because they exist within an easily understandable framework.

This leads to a question of how memory works. Memory is often explained in terms of the most recent developments in information technology. For hundreds of years, memory was compared to a book or a library of books where memories were “written” and then “stored” in some fashion. It was thought that there was something akin to a card catalog that provided guidance as to how to access these memories and we would dig them out of the recesses of our minds and bring them out to view. With the coming computer age, memory is now compared to a hard drive full of bits and bytes where memories are coded for rapid retrieval on recall when needed. The information was thought to be stored in much the same way a computer writes files to a disk.

More recent findings have brought many of these assumptions into question. I’ve not been able to keep up with all the findings, but it appears to me that the distinction between memory and imagination is beginning to blur. In other words, we don’t recall memories so much as we construct them out of various constituents that reside throughout our minds. Resurrecting a memory is not too far removed from imagining something we’ve never seen or done before. This is one of the reasons our memories are subject to persuasion and alteration and possibly why they are so unreliable on one hand and remarkably dependable on the other.

What this means for us in the training and performance world is that maybe we are wasting our time on helping people recall information or even expecting them to recall information. Maybe what we should be doing is helping them to construct information based on what they’ve learned in class. Instead of trying to get them to memorize what to think, maybe we should be training them how to think. And how do we do that?

Most of the training I’m developing right now is scenario-based that allows learners to make decisions and learn from their mistakes. We provide them with some basic information that they need to use and send them on their way through the course where mistakes happen as a result of not knowing or recalling the information presented in the first part of the class. These mistakes provide “teachable moments” or, more accurately, “learnable moments” where learners teach themselves the things they need to know to get through the scenarios successfully. This is one area where instead of presenting people with facts and figures and testing their working memory capacity, we put them in situations to see if they can figure things out for themselves. In addition to making the learning events a much more pleasant experience, we are also seeing a reduction in time spent in training events while managing to retain training over a longer period of time.

Here’s an example of a quick scenario for restaurant workers based on information about food allergens. The correct behaviors are to refer the customer to information sources where they can make their own decisions and if the customer has a concern, to comply with their requests. This tool, Branch Track, is one I’ve promoted before and would recommend checking out. These scenarios are easy to build, look decent, and are SCORM compliant. I could have added scoring to go with them, but just wanted to throw something together to show you an alternative to an info-dump/recall quiz. Start with the quiz (or activity) first and then people have a reason to attend the training as well as developing for themselves a narrative that makes the training a lot more sticky.