Last week I brought up this FastCompany article on 3 Simple Steps to Boost Your Memory. Since then, they’ve added this article. Kind of makes me wonder what they’ve forgotten and what they are trying so hard to remember. But (as always), I digress.

As you recall, the article summarized Dr. Gary Small’s book, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, which highlighted these three steps to improve your memory:

  • Meditate
  • Focus and Frame
  • Prospective Review Time

I concentrated on the Focus and Frame segment last week. As promised, I’ll take a look at Prospective Review Time and how we can use that to enhance retention. Here is what the article says:

“A major problem people have is with what we call prospective memory,” says Dr. Small. Prospective memory is the ability to recall that you need to do something in the future. “You leave the house and you forget your phone or the file you need for a meeting.”

“This has to do with teaching memory habits,” says Dr. Small. “We all tend to do this to some extent—we have memory places that remind us to do things. For example, next to the dinette table, I have my vitamins in the drawer, and that reminds me to take my vitamins in the morning.”

I have been teaching prospective memory techniques for years and never knew that’s what it was called. My children have been unwilling victims of repeated attempts to imbue them with flawless prospective memory skills. The most common venue for this lesson is to inform them that I should never hear a plaintive request from an occupied restroom for someone to bring them a roll of toilet paper.


I am of the opinion that anyone who enters a restroom knows what they want to accomplish and what tools they need to get the job done before they ever get started. I believe restroom users should have a such a deep-seated habit of making sure all required supplies and equipment are on hand before committing to a course of action, that a request for someone to bring them toilet paper could never possibly happen. Thanks to the power of negative stimuli and operant conditioning (in this case a long-winded lecture to a captive learner on “The Need To Plan Ahead” delivered free charge  with the accompanying delivery of a fresh roll of toilet paper), I haven’t heard this request in years. From a training effectiveness evaluation standpoint, I consider this a win.

Experience has shown, however, that this skill doesn’t necessarily transfer well. I may have successfully prepared them to never find themselves in a public restroom at a loss for necessary tools and equipment, but that doesn’t mean my learners have extended this lesson to other areas of their lives. However, due to repeated early-stage training events, I have a shorthand way of promoting the virtue of prospective memory when cross-discipline training situations arise  by simply asking the aphoristic question, “You’re not hollering for toilet paper, are you?” Even in non-restroom situations, the lesson is clearly understood that one doesn’t start something unless one has checked to make sure they have sufficient tools and equipment on hand to finish the task.

So how do we instill this “check for toilet paper” skill in other areas of life? For me, the key is mental rehearsal and practice. We all know the phrase (rendered approximately as), “Prior planning prevents …poor performance.” As important as the planning is, I’ve found it insufficient on its own to boost prospective memory. This is where preparation and practice come to the rescue.

One of the things I’ve learned from my days working the lab bench is that you never begin an experiment until you have done two very important things:

  1. Read the procedure
  2. Assemble the ingredients & equipment

Reading the procedure is more than passing one’s eyes over the instructions. It involves an evaluation of all the steps that need to take place, an estimation of the amount of time that will elapse, and a consideration of all the ancillary steps that need to accompany the procedure. For me, this was a mental rehearsal of all the tasks I needed to complete in order to have a successful experiment. As I read the procedure, I visualized myself performing the steps before I even made a move. The next step was to assemble all the ingredients, line them up on the bench in the order in which I was going to use them, (yes, I’m OCD that way) and put the equipment together. In effect, this was a second rehearsal of the experiment. By the time I actually performed the experiment, I had already “done” it twice in my head.

This mental rehearsal has stood me in good stead outside of the lab as well. I don’t start cooking anything at home unless I’ve read the recipe and assembled all the ingredients and equipment. On a side note, I’ve also found that it isn’t considered helpful by other people who don’t use this technique and they ask you to run to the store for a needed ingredient, to be quizzed on whether or not they checked to see if they had everything they needed to finish the job before they started cooking. Not every opportunity represents a “teachable moment” I’m afraid.

Getting back to the subject at hand – toilet paper. If I put the last roll of toilet paper on the spindle, how do I remember to get toilet paper on the way home from work? I use the same review and rehearsal techniques. I visualize myself driving by the store on my way home from work and mentally going through the actions of finding aisle, getting the toilet paper, and paying for it. This creates a mental trigger that reminds me when I drive by the store that I need to stop. Sometimes I don’t immediately remember why I need to stop, but on a few moment’s reflection it usually comes to me. This is because I “remember” already doing what it is that I need to do. Instead of trying to recall a piece of data – “Get toilet paper” – I recall the imagined experience of stopping at the store, going down the aisle, loading my cart, and checking out. For some reason, it is easier to recall the elaborate imagined experience than the simple datum. I believe this is tied to the fact that I’ve created a simulated experience that creates an emotional connection that helps lodge it in the memory. This is in contrast to the demonstrably ineffective momentary passing thought, “I’ll need to remember to get toilet paper on the way home from work today.”

At this point, the question pops up as to how this relates to what we do for a living as instructional designers. I am convinced that we rarely remember facts and data very well, but we are capable of remembering experiences and emotions with astonishing clarity. I do not believe this is a function concentrated in people who are “kinesthetic learners,” because I don’t believe there is such a thing. I believe that we all have a capacity and a propensity to learn kinesthetically. Maybe not to the same degree or intensity for every experience, but there is definitely a human prejudice to remember actions and emotions over information and data.

Examples are abundant. We say of easily remembered skills that, “It is just like riding a bike,” meaning that once learned, it is never forgotten. Everyone who learns to ride a bike appears to exercise kinesthetic learning with a high degree of permanence. When we learn the alphabet, we usually learn it though exposure to the ABC song. Music is an emotional hook that provides structure to an otherwise random set of symbols arranged in no particular order making them memorable to even pre-literate children.

This leads me to conclude that training should not be designed around a series of facts or data sets or bullet points. Training should be designed around experiences. Imagine immersing a learner or set of learners in an experience – it doesn’t even need to be real. It can be an imaginary one. Then, following the experience, have them highlight some of the key points through the use of guided questions that causes them to reflect on the experience, make sense of it, and draw insights for future behavior from it. Embed emotional content in the form of music, art, visuals, stories, humorous anecdotes, etc. and we have a recipe for training that sticks. We’ve all been to a number of training events and the ones that are most memorable are the ones where we’ve been deeply involved, either through an immersive activity or a compelling story that had a strong emotional hook, or both.

So what would that training look like? Here’s an example of an immersive learning experience that triggers an emotional response and hopefully promotes recall:  TED Talks are marked by compelling stories that create an emotional hook. Here are some of the best:  Our training needs to provide experiences that immerse learners in situations that trigger emotional connections to the training. It may not guarantee that they remember everything, but it will guarantee that they will forget less of it.

And for those of you who want to argue with this, let me drop this little gem on you: So, if we remember experiences and emotions better than facts and data, why is it that we remember so many bits of trivia so well and for so long? Aren’t they just random data bits and factoids? We’ll find an answer to this question next time.

It may even be correct!