Richard Presley's Meandering Missives

Occasional thoughts on learning, training, and the business of both



Hot Dog!


One of the things drilled into anyone who has attended an Edward Tufte presentation is the concept of information density. Tufte also highlights the importance of visual beauty and many of his examples are elegant for both informational density and eye-catching display. Thanks to the power of the web, we can now include interactivity to the tri-partite mix on the visual display of information.


One of the candidates I would like to nominate for Top Dog when it comes to data visualization is this beauty: It is both attractive and informative. If only they had made it more interactive. This week’s post will look at the possibilities afforded in this stunningly beautiful and delightfully informative work.


First of all, the graphic is immediately intuitive. It has a winsome overlay typical of the four quadrant model that has been tediously overworked in most business settings, but is delightfully quirky here. While we may have personal objections to the corner labels, for purposes of information clarity, they are easy to understand. The axes are clearly labeled and easily understood. The legends are simple, easily comprehended, and allow us to rapidly assimilate the data. As much as Ed Tufte likes Minard’s depiction of Napoleon’s March to Moscow, I would give the edge to this graphic as a thing of beauty.


Second is the information density. Each individual figure contains three dimensions of information:

  • Breed intelligence
  • Breed size
  • Breed type (based on AKC group)

Each figure contains a legend with the breed name, and it’s placement on the graph describes the breed’s overall score. You will note that not all breeds recognized by the AKC are listed, nor are any dogs listed that are not recognized by the AKC. There is an amusing figure to the right of the Papillon that isn’t labeled, but its identity is easily ascertained, making for a nice little Easter Egg.


While the individual breed traits are interesting, the graphic lends itself to some general conclusions. Nearly all the hounds face to the left identifying them as less intelligent than the average pooch. Terriers tend to be more heavily clustered the lower one goes in popularity. Working dogs may be equally as popular and intelligent as sporting and toy dogs, but they score much lower on the data score. Prospective owners need to be aware of the things that affect their ranking. My guess, since they tend to be large breeds, is that they get a low score on “appetite.” All of these are examples of insights that users gain from the structure of the infographic itself, rather than explicit descriptions.


If I were designing this as a piece of eLearning, I would want to make this graphic interactive as well as attractive. The first feature I would have included is a zoom function. The graph has a “busy” look to it that could be mitigated by the ability to zoom in and out. Another advantage to the zoom is that other breeds that are not included in the full view could appear as one zoomed further in.


An additional interactive feature that would have made this a treasured online reference would be the ability to expand the breed information. One method to do this would be a rollover pop-up box included with each breed detailing their data score with a histogram on the individual components that contributed to the final result. This would help account for the left clustering of the working breeds compared to the sporting and toy breeds. To make the breed icons even more informative (and useful), the designers could have made each icon a clickable link to that breed’s AKC page.


For those of us in the ID world who get requests from clients and managers to “turn this 100+ slide presentation of Absolutely Vital Information into eLearning so we can put it on the network,” we need to think outside the deck. Our customers may wonder how we can convert all that data into something simple, but this infographic provides a way for us to visualize the paradox of providing a simple interface with detailed information that is more interactive than a series of click-through slides. Here is a general process we can follow:

  • Identify the single idea that the presentation is intending to convey and convert it into a graphic representation, usually on two dimensions. This is undoubtedly the most difficult part of the job.
  • Arrange all the basic information along the graph’s two dimensions in an intuitive fashion that allows for almost instantaneous comprehension.
  • Increase the information density through the use of multiple visual cues including:
    • Color coding
    • Relative size
    • Text labeling
    • Object shape
    • Object orientation
  • Use interactivity for detailed information that supplements, but may distract from the Main Idea. In other words, keep the details hidden until they are needed using:
    • Roll-over popups
    • Hyperlinks
    • Zoom function


With a little creativity, we can honor the customer request and at the same time design something elegant and useful. Imagine your delight at taking that 100+ slide deck you started with and handing back a single page eLearning component to your customer with the statement, “Don’t worry. It’s all there.”


The Persistence of Trivia

The Persistence of Memory ~Salvador Dali
The Persistence of Memory ~Salvador Dali

Last week I said that it was much easier to remember complex information that is part of an immersive experience that triggers an emotional response than it is to recall disconnected info bits.

And none of you said I was wrong.

Shame on you.

I’m thinking that I should get a job as a Consultant because my blathering went uncontested. Oh, wait. I am. Never mind.

Since none of you were kind enough to challenge me, let me propose a contrarian viewpoint. So here I am fighting with myself….

If we supposedly have a difficult time recalling facts and data, why is it that we can memorize a prodigious amount of trivial information with almost no effort? For example, did you know the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard? How is it that I happen to know that unusual and possibly useless fact? In part, it’s because I was once a biology teacher and had an arsenal of curious factoids at my disposal. In actuality, I knew this fact long before I became a biology major. When I was a youngster I heard this Bob and Ray skit. For obvious reasons every time I think of Komodo dragons, the fact that they are the world’s largest living lizard pops into my head. My guess is that it will stick with you now that you have heard Bob and Ray.

Komodo Dragon From

One explanation for why we remember random bits of trivia relates to Piaget’s stages of development. When we are younger we respond very well to rote memory and are able to compile a staggering amount of information and keep it in our heads. This includes things like the multiplication tables, spelling rules, the names of the 50 states and their capitals, and lyrics to countless songs. Our young minds are like sponges soaking up prodigious amounts of information, but somewhere during our later elementary years, our minds begin to change and we lose the ability to quickly assimilate knowledge through rote memory. Which is why you no longer effortlessly memorize lyrics to songs in the 2010’s – not because the music really stinks compared to the 80’s.

However, this does not account for information that sticks in our head quickly and easily after we become older. Why is it that fantasy football fanatics can memorize page after page of current player statistics with seemingly miniscule effort? And for those of us with no interest in fantasy football or baseball statistics, we feel like dunderheads because we don’t know even the most basic information. Nor does there seem to be any way for us to duplicate their feats, even if we had access to the same information sources. Are these people naturally smarter than we are? Of course not. They’re playing fantasy football, after all.

Clearly, there is more to memorization than just access to information and “natural ability.” We have already seen that it is much easier to recall information that is linked to already existing information. If a person knows the engine size and horsepower output for every Corvette model year since 1966, it is a relatively easy thing to add the stats for the 2016 model because it fits neatly within the context of already existing information. But this begs the question of why is there 50 years of Corvette engine history inside someone’s head in the first place? That’s the hard question with the easy answer – they have an interest in it. So why is that such a hard question if it has such an easy answer? Because the hard part of the question is, “Why do they have an interest in it?”

Why do I remember the fact that the Komodo dragon is the world’s largest living lizard? Was it because I’ve always been interested in animal facts, leading to my eventual college major of biology? Perhaps. Was it because I like Bob & Ray and listened to them whenever I got a chance? Maybe. Was it because I laughed myself silly listening to their spoof of clueless newscasters (which has contributed to my view of press pundits ever since)? Could be.  Undoubtedly, there are even more reasons not immediately apparent even to me. Simply put, there were multiple interconnected threads that linked a bit of trivial information through an emotional experience that permanently etched itself into my brain. It is almost impossible to understand why any particular info bit is of interest to us.

I discovered that this pattern holds across almost everything I know. When playing Trivial Pursuit I noticed that every time I got an answer correct and people asked, “How could you possibly know that?” I was able to tell a story of how that particular info bit got lodged in my brain. It was sort of like a real-life Slumdog Millionaire experience – but without the cash winnings, of course. I discovered that information doesn’t exist on its own in our brains; it is connected and interconnected to experiences that we may or may not remember, all of which contribute to its meaning and significance.

To summarize so far:

  • We routinely memorize vast quantities of trivial information
  • We tend to easily learn information that is of interest to us
  • The reason the information is of interest to us is not readily apparent
  • And I still forget why I walked into the room sometimes – oh, wait. That was last week.

This naturally leads us to question how this can be of any use to us as instructional designers, but I suspect you already know the answer. Before we get to it, though, let’s look at a contrary example – stuff I wish people didn’t know.

As a teacher, I had to work hard to teach students the phases of mitosis and the chemical formula for photosynthesis, but it was nothing compared to how hard I had to work every year to convince people that blood in veins is not blue. For whatever reason, the vast majority of kids would come into class and tell me that they “knew” venous blood was blue because that’s what they’ve always been taught. They would argue vehemently that this was true – even though they have never seen blue blood. When I quizzed them about this, they said that once the blood was exposed to oxygen it turned red and that’s why we never see the blue blood. So naturally, I was intrigued by how quickly and pervasively these things spread when truth appeared to travel at a glacial pace. Why is it that I struggled so hard to impart easily recalled information when there were so many false facts they were able to recall quickly and easily?

I concluded that the reason false facts were so persistent is because they invoked an emotional response that provided a lasting experience which stimulated recall. When students are confronted with diagrams of the human circulatory system that show arteries as red and veins as blue, this creates a cognitive disconnect, because intuition leads them to assume all blood vessels are red. Their teacher points out that if they look at veins under their skin, they appear blue. Suddenly, what was originally counterintuitive now makes complete sense and they have an “Ah, ha!” moment. The emotional epiphany makes a lasting impression. And thus a non-existent fact is permanently etched in their brains.

My training strategy from then on was to create emotional epiphanies every day in hopes that some of it might stick. As a biology teacher, this was fairly easy since the entire field is full of fun facts and freaky creatures. To this day, my students remember facts about the loa loa worm and Komodo dragon, among others.

Since I no longer teach biology professionally, I have translated this approach to instructional design by including as many shocking stories or astounding facts as I can. We call them case studies and scenario based learning, but the pedagogical model is the same – create an engaging experience that evokes an emotional response and recall will be enhanced. We have a number of options at our disposal to accomplish this:

And plenty more. Let’s do our best to shock, surprise, and engage in order to inform.

Hollering for Toilet Paper

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!

How Much Does it Cost to Pay Attention?

FastCompany had an article on how to boost memory:

It begins with this premise:

If we ever meet and then we meet a second time, and I greet you by saying, “Hey man,” it’s not because I’m an ultra casual kind of guy, it’s because I’ve forgotten your name.

But please, don’t feel bad. It’s not because you’re boring or unimportant or uninteresting. It’s not because of you at all. It’s me. Or more specifically, it’s this thing I have (this thing we all have, actually), called continuous partial attention (CPA). The term was first coined in the late 1990s to describe how we started to deal with the increasing influx of “never-ending” information. Back in the 1990s, this was basically our cell phone and the Internet (whenever we were at our desk, that is). We began giving a lot of information all a little bit of attention. We were adapting—and it was manageable.

Jump forward almost 20 years and our desk-bound Internet has become our everywhere Internet, and our cell phones have become smartphones with more pings and notifications than we ever thought possible. Combine that with social media, our laptops, our smart watches, and our CPA is in overdrive. Our brains can’t keep up with all the stimulation, so it begins to push things we should remember—simple things like names—out of our minds to make room for a very broad overview of our social media mentions and push notifications.

I don’t know how old Michael Grothaus is, but I can assure him that back in the 60’s and 70’s (and likely for years and years before that) people were still not remembering simple things like people’s names or the telephone number they just dialed. Here’s a bit of an experiment to prove that people generally don’t pay attention. The next time you see someone check the time on their watch (or more likely, their cell phone) immediately ask them what time it is. Odds are they couldn’t tell you without looking again, even though that information should still be in short-term memory.

I was doing this experiment in the 1980’s and continuous partial attention (CPA) was alive and well long ages before the internet came into being. Linda Stone had a blog post on CPA and she treats it as a new phenomenon too. As I recall from my elementary school days, CPA was a coping mechanism for surviving the dull boring lectures that made up the school day. I believe they called it “daydreaming” back then. I’m not really sure what solution these authors are proffering other than the one Mrs. Putney, my English teacher, was constantly directing at me – PAY ATTENTION! In retrospect, I don’t think that is really a helpful admonition that directs us to productive activity. Sure, I needed to pay attention, but there was no instruction in how to pay attention. We tacitly assume that everyone knows that already. Research suggests that’s not the case.

FastCompany recommends Dr. Gary Small’s book, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, and summarizes some of his findings with these three steps to improve memory:

  • Meditate
  • Focus and Frame
  •  Prospective Review Time

Many of the techniques mentioned in the “Focus and Frame” section are reminiscent of the mnemonic exercises offered by Jerry Lucas, the famed memory coach. The key to most memory techniques is that a person has to be deliberate and disciplined about making the effort to attend to stimuli in order to succeed in these endeavors. In other words, people need to pay attention. Once again, Captain Obvious delivers.

Let me provide a more helpful example. A person who doesn’t ever want to be caught not knowing what time it is seconds after looking at a watch, must first of all determine that every time they look at a watch, clock, or timepiece, they will make a mental note of what time it is. Simply put, they attend to the time at every opportunity through conscious effort. The next step is that they have to put this attentive awareness in a context that gives the stimulus meaning. If they look at the clock and note it is 3:25, one of the things they could do to contextualize this number is to think, “I’ll be going home in an hour and 35 minutes.” If they do something similar every time they look at the time, anchoring what they just saw in the context of what they are doing or about to do, within a few weeks, they will begin to develop an almost uncanny sense of what time it is. People will be able to ask them if they have the time and, without looking at a watch, they could tell the person the correct time within five minutes. The chances are pretty good that they had seen a clock of some sort within the last hour and because they were attentive to it, they know about how long ago it was that they had noted the time, did the mental math, and were able to estimate what the time is now. This is the definition of paying attention – attending to a phenomenon.

We saw last week that paying attention comes with some costs. In some cases, concentration focuses our attention so tightly that we are oblivious to other stimuli, even when it is glaringly obvious. The act of concentrating on one thing prevents us from attending to something else. Stage magicians do this deliberately with misdirection while eLearning Instructional Designers often do this unintentionally with spelling mistakes, grammar errors, or needless complications in training. These are things that break people’s information flow and interrupt their concentration.

At the same time, a lack of stimulus often hinders attention. I just saw this from eLearning Brothers and it points to the fact that we are hard-wired to receive certain stimulus cues that actually improve, focus, and direct attention. Relating this to my last post, I believe such hard wiring is linked to our innate need to recognize patterns and even to create patterns where they do not exist. This is why it is incredibly difficult to duplicate four musical tones played in a random order, but it is childishly simple to play the same four tones in an order that makes a tune. As long as additional stimuli fit into and reinforce an easily understood pattern, they do not add to the cognitive load and may actually help reduce it.

And this brings us to a final aspect of paying attention – habituation. Skilled basketball players do not pay attention to their dribbling, nor do skilled musicians pay attention to what fingerings they use when playing notes. These actions are so deeply habituated that if these professionals were asked to concentrate on their actions, it might actually hinder their performance. Knowing what time it is can become so habituated that it is done without conscious effort. Want to know how I know that? In summary, paying attention can be practiced to such a degree and become so deeply ingrained that we no longer have to pay attention to notice things. If you have any doubts, just watch a kid manipulate a Nintendo or PS3 controller with all its knobs and buttons and try to duplicate those moves yourself.

We need to be alert to attention and habituated behavior or the lack of it when designing our training. We most often run into these issues as user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) issues. The most obvious eLearning faux pas in my opinion is to use underlining for text emphasis instead of bold or italics. This is especially egregious if you make your text blue with an underline like this. See? Isn’t that aggravating? How many times did you click the non-link before giving up? Just to make you feel better about all that fruitless clicking, I’ll give you a link to learn more about how habituation affects cognition here.

In a word, effective engagement leading to appropriate attention occurs when we provide sufficient stimulation to create interest but not so much that it becomes distracting or confusing. The stimulus that we provide needs to fit within the context or pattern of the training we’re developing in order to make sense. We need to keep in mind that trying to find the balance between too much and too little stimulation is sometimes subtle and sometimes not. More about attention and the learning space in future missives. For now, “eliminating distractions” may or may not be a good thing depending on the context, so don’t be surprised if some of your efforts backfire. Paying attention is not as simple as Mrs. Putney made it out to be.

Information Processing

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.

“If only they would just LISTEN!”

Facepalm 01

How many times have we heard this from our clients looking for a training solution? Even more likely, how often have we thought it regarding our clients, learners, close friends, and family members?

As you all know, I have a fascination with the process of human cognition and naturally gravitate to discussions on the topic. Last week on NPR there was a story about the disparity between how well established the theory of evolution is and the resistance in certain populations to accept it as true. I’m not interested in discussing evolution, but I do find it interesting that someone looked at the idea of why people are resistant to certain ideas.

The conclusion of the article intimated that individuals with a stronger intuitive response than others “are likely to experience a stronger pull toward purposive thinking, a greater aversion to uncertainty and other cognitive preferences at odds with evolution. If their intuitive responses are generally stronger, they’re also less likely to succeed in overriding them by engaging in analytic or reflective thought.”  The article favors sociological factors as a strong influence on this aversion to reflective thought.

The part that caught my eye was the discussion on cognitive styles, particularly those who need to live in a world that makes sense versus those who are able to be comfortable with ambiguity and chaos. From my anecdotal observations, people who gravitate to various religious persuasions seem to have common cognitive styles. My mom has always been a “fish out of water” type in the Baptist denomination but is much happier now as a Presbyterian. We’ve discussed this at length, and I’m sure she would be in agreement that a good bit of her current comfort level is that she is surrounded by people who may or may not agree with her, but they tend to approach things from a common starting point and deal with it using common methods.

I have seen a phenomenon repeated in venues outside of religious thought such as the chemistry lab where an individual will enter the environment with a set of beliefs based on their upbringing, tradition, and education. They encounter a set of beliefs that contradicts their understanding and they are fiercely resistant to it. At this point, there are a number of options:

  • They can walk away and not deal with the difference
  • They can maintain their personal belief and “suffer in silence”
  • They can attempt to persuade the others how wrong they are and convince them of the truth.
  • The fourth option – blandly accepting the alternative explanation without the blink of an eye – never seems to happen.

Most often arguments ensue. Passionate arguments. Heated. And then an amazing thing happens. Most often, the person will have an “Ah ha!” moment and assent to the new truth, abandoning the old understanding and suddenly becoming a vocal proponent of the new system. I have seen this happen too many times to count. This phenomenon of sudden insight continues to fascinate me. It’s like a switch turns on or a sudden sharpening of focus and “everything makes sense.” It happened to me when I was struggling in physics class. After one particularly harrowing all-nighter preparing for a quiz, something “clicked” and from then on the class was easy. The cognitive psychologist in me attributed it to forming a cognitive structure where I was finally able to make sense of the class in a way that was meaningful for me.

If I were to summarize this, I would suggest that an inherent barrier to learning is our inability to “make sense” of the information we are presented with. It doesn’t fit our current cognitive structure or deeply ingrained belief system or whatever we want to call it, so we either reject it outright, suffer in silence, or try to argue it away. Occasionally, although I’ve never seen it happen, we nod semi-passively, and say, “Sure. Whatever you say,” accepting something that seems to contradict our fundamental understanding of the world. The solution, it would seem according to the NPR article, is more information and more analytic thought. So how do we get people to think analytically? And this is where the arguments come in. They are a process that forces promoters of opposing ideas to engage in considered thought, reflection, and analysis in order to convince the other person of what’s right.

As instructional designers, we should be prepared to face resistance to new ideas, particularly if they contradict established ways of doing or understanding things. I think one of the things we can do to foster reflective thought is to create activities that encourage healthy debate. In formal debate, the competitors have to know the arguments for both sides because they are not told which side they are arguing for until they arrive. We can create activities similar to this where participants have to:

  • Find objections and counters to the new idea – the objections for them are probably easy, but getting them to brainstorm the counters might engage them in some analytical thinking.
  • Five Whys – Have participants brainstorm the reason why someone would support the new idea. Then ask why would that reason be so important. And continue on until the basis for the change is discovered. This can be followed up with “Five Why Nots?” in which they evaluate the objections to each of the whys.
  • What if? Scenarios – One of my favorite Monty Python lines is at the end of this sketch where the city slicker asks “Why not get rid of Harold?” The farmer objects to this by considering, “…the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed.” Maybe the best thing we could do with our learners who are resistant to analytical and reflective thinking due to deeply held cognitive patterns is to invite them to consider the possibilities if the problem idea succeeds.

The Paper Interface

I came on this article from Allen Interactions on using primitive tools to do storyboarding:
In our modern age of computerized convenience, the default is often to get out the laptop or tablet and start tapping away. But sometimes that may not be the best first step. Or even the second or third. What I like best about the article is that it uses people to mimic the computer actions while capturing ideas and designs on paper. So I started pondering how this applies across more than just design.
Task Analysis
I am a compulsive scribbler and note taker. If the phone rings, my reflexive response is to reach for the pad and pen to capture whatever action items are going to result. I think all of us are good at note-taking during the task analysis portion, but how many of us take the more interactive approach that Hannah suggest in her article? What if instead of a simple conversation, we also included pantomime and acting out of processes and procedures? And don’t forget role play. When we hone in on behavior-based change (which is our ultimate objective as IDs) it might help our SMEs and stakeholders to act out the behavior they want us to include in our training.
This is easy to do at a call center since we can act out the phone script, but what about training staff on handling customer complaints or conducting job interviews or having one of those crucial conversations? For instance, I could easily see us incorporating a role-playing technique in a task analysis something like this:
ID: I’m going to pretend to be the customer and you pretend to be the worker, OK?
ID: I want you to show me first of all what staff are currently doing when they have customer interactions.
SME: That’s easy.
ID: “I have a complaint about the product. It doesn’t work.”
SME: “What did you expect? You bought the cheapest thing we manufacture. That’s a total piece of junk. What you need is the WhizBang 2000 instead of the GeeWhiz 20.”
ID: “Why would I buy the WhizBang 2000 if you can’t even make a GeeWhiz 20 that works? I’m going to take my business elsewhere.”
SME: “Good luck with that. You won’t find anything that cheap anywhere else.”
The ID would capture notes and this could become the basis of a scenario-based learning event. Then they would repeat this using the behavior the learner should be demonstrating.
Training Design
I think the article does a good job capturing how to incorporate low-tech into the design phase of training. There are other things we can do besides sticky notes and white boards (i.e. the tried-and-true Parking Lot). All of us who have done presentations are intimately familiar with flip charts. Tear those sheets off and use them for diagramming process steps or concept maps or sketching layouts.
Training Development
The current project I’m working on is an e-Learning solution. Most of what I’ve developed so far has been on paper. Using Captivate, I created a shell that I am using for a demo of how the training will look. Since editing in Captivate is a terrible pain, I am saving the actual creation of the e-Learning for last. My goal is that my SMEs will look at the demo to get a picture in their heads of how the training is going to look when it’s done, but that the real important part of content development will be done on paper first. I started with Excel to map out the process steps and then converted that to a storyboard in Word. Technically, it’s not paper based, but it’s a lot quicker and easier than Captivate.
Sidebar Rant
Why oh why do people INSIST on presenting handouts in PowerPoint? Why? I want to pull my hair out every time someone hands me a slide deck printed on paper. Why can they not take their PowerPoint, convert it to Outline view and export it as a Word document that prints out on 3 pages instead of 30 pages of slide composed mostly of empty space? I am fast coming to the prejudicial conclusion that anyone who prints an entire slide deck instead of a Word document for a handout is an idiot. I know it is bad of me to think this, but I’m probably a bad person for wanting to use words instead of white space to convey meaning.
Training Evaluation
No, this is not about the smile sheets. This is about tracking performance. If we are serious about business performance, we should be able to document time saved, money saved, money earned, customers retained, employees satisfied, lost time accidents reduced, auditors who have returned favorable findings, or some other piece of paper that shows a response to our efforts. To the degree possible, we need to make sure these are included in quarterly or annual reports. I’m not a big fan of numbers of people who attended class or hours spent in training (unless it is government mandated hours of training and then it satisfies a compliance requirement and reduces organizational exposure to risk). Training may not be able to show a direct ROI, but we should at least be able to note our impact as part of an overall performance strategy.
Paper is not going away. If PowerPoint decks are any guide, it will only get worse as we become more electronic. The trick is to make sure we use it to our advantage.
In other news, along with Lajuana, I too have landed. I have taken a position as a Consultant with Sequent in Columbus. I will be the e-Learning innovator part of the training and performance side of the team looking at training solutions for their clients. I have been working for them for the last month as a contractor and due to a staffing change, they were able to bring me on full time. I want to personally thank all of you for your support and especially Bill Daniels for helping me get my feet wet in the world of contract training development. The skills I learned from you came in handy and went a long way toward creating a favorable impression. And just as importantly, my fellow Drewsters over the years have demonstrated how a good team operates and I cannot thank you enough for helping to hone my rough edges and show me what it’s like to work as part of a collaborative team. Well done, everyone.
Common Craft Offering
Finally, for those of you looking for an oversimplified explanation of agile methodology that uses an effective stawman argument, check out the latest from Lee Lefever of Common Craft: he says is true and accurate. It is also irrelevant as anyone who has used the waterfall methodology effectively can tell you. The explanation shows what happens when slavishly adhering to a process (the straw man) or using the map the find the best way, but altering direction on the way when it doesn’t match the road construction (what REALLY happens under the waterfall). They just call the latter “agile” and describe it like it’s something different.

The Business of Education and Business

How Asia WorksI just picked up the book How Asia Works by Joe Studwell and am breezing through the introduction. For those of you who like books on economics and economic development, you’ll be absolutely thrilled and delighted with his premise.

For people who are, oddly, not fascinated by economics, you can ignore the book and follow along with this week’s missive. Here is a lengthy quote from the Introduction on a topic that the book promises not to deal with at length, but is probably one of the topics I’m most interested in. These three paragraphs say a LOT about the current state of education here in America (without even mentioning it specifically) as we seek to be competitive in the world market (emphasis mine).

There are two, related explanations for the patchy connection between education and economic growth. The one heard about most often is that, from a developmental perspective, there is too much education of the wrong kind. In east Asia there exists a marked contrast between the emphasis on vocational training of secondary and tertiary level students in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China, versus the less trades-focused education systems of former European and US colonial states in southeast Asia. The engineering qualifications of a Taiwanese student may be more appropriate to the initial task of economic advancement than the accountancy qualification of the Malaysian student. By the late 1980s, vocational training (mostly focused on manufacturing) constituted 55 percent of tertiary education in Taiwan, while less than 10 percent of students were taking humanities subjects. In the 1980s, relative to population, Taiwan had 70 per cent more engineers than the US. Like Korea and Japan, which established the model in east Asia, the Taiwanese education system came to resemble those of the manufacturing-based economies of Germany and Italy in Europe. Southeast Asian states, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, placed more emphasis on the humanities and on ‘pure science.’

A shortfall of vocational training and engineers, however, cannot be more than a tiny part of the explanation for the laggardly performances of southeast Asian states and others with educational profiles like them. To begin with, in northeast Asia most of the engineers were trained after fast growth took off. The early success of Meiji Japan was achieved with surprisingly few engineers – the country only began to step up its vocational and scientific and technical education in the 1930s. In countries like Cuba and Russia, by contrast, vast numbers of engineers have been churned out without positive results. All this points to the second and almost certainly more important, reason why data about formal education and development do not jibe well. It is that a lot of critical learning in the most successful developing countries takes place outside the formal education sector. It occurs instead, inside firms.

This intra-firm learning helps explain the relative failure of the former Soviet Union and its satellites, where investment in education and research was focused on elite universities and state research institutions rather than inside businesses. The situation has been not too dissimilar in southeast Asia which combined the Anglo-Saxon tradition of elitist tertiary education with a major post-independence expansion of public sector research institutions. In Japan, Korea, Taiwan and post-1978 China, by contrast, a lot of highly effective educational investment and research has been concentrated not in the formal education sector but within companies, and by definition – unlike the Soviet situation – within companies that are competing internationally. This may be critical to the rapid acquisition of technological capacity. As the Japanese scholar Masayuki Kondo put it when describing Malaysia’s failure to develop indigenous technological capacity despite a lot of investment in higher education and research: ‘The main context of industrial technology development is firms, not public institutions.’ Technology policy, not science policy, is the key to the early stages of industrial development. As a result, a government’s industrial strategy is the most powerful determinant of success If a state does not force the creation of firms that can be the vehicles for industrial learning – and then nurture them – all efforts at formal education may go to waste. The only caveat is that once a country reaches the ‘technological frontier’ in manufacturing, its optimal educational mix – and the relationship between institutions of formal education and learning within firms – changes.

Did you follow that? I wanted to stand up and shout – mostly at politicians who want to transform our public schools into education factories through the use of quality assurance techniques (read “testing”) instead of actual quality control. Basically, politicians and administrators want to “test into compliance” the education of our students. Studwell shows us another way.

For those of us in the business of educating people in the world of business, we are confronted with the needs of teaching people how to do their jobs. I interviewed today with a firm about designing training for a major restaurant chain and it was all about “vocational education” in the sense that training outcomes were tied to job performance. We typically don’t blink an eye at this. Of course they are, right?

Schools, on the other hand, are not under the same kind of pressures we are. In fact, they seem to become increasingly divorced from job performance and driven more toward “educational outcomes.” My question is, “What if they succeed?” Even if we have the most highly trained and competent STEM students in the world, does that mean they can get jobs? See:

So what does that have to do with us? For those of us who have kids in the system, we need to point out that not everybody can be a rocket scientist even if you have a degree. Someone still needs to put the power lines back in place after the storm and you don’t need a college degree to do that. Just as importantly, you can’t go to school anywhere to learn how to put the power lines back up, you have to learn that on the job. And that’s where we shine. As long as the economy supports job growth in ALL sectors, we will find work. I am delighted by the opportunity to train fast food workers in a creative and entertaining way that engages them because it means they have an opportunity to learn something of value, even if it is something as mundane as putting your burger together in a way that is appetizing, appealing, and not going to kill you.

In other news, some of you know about my humanitarian project since the launch of my campaign. I am raising funds so that I can take 100 water filter kits to the Masai Mara in Kenya and put together household water purification systems. I have built a relationship with the supplier who has done similar projects, mostly in southeast Asia and on disaster sites. Here is a link to the system we will be constructing: Obviously, I would be delighted if you could make a generous contribution to help fund this project, but more importantly, if you could get the word out about my GoFundMe campaign, that would be even better. Suffice to say, I am not yet a viral sensation, but if each of you would pass the word along to friends who are concerned about clean water in developing countries and saving lives by reducing water-borne pathogens, I would greatly appreciate it. Also, let them know that I’m not a fly-by-night fundraiser, but can reliably be trusted to accomplish what I set out to do.

Visual Thinking – Keep It Simple


I subscribe to Tom Kuhlmann’s Rapid eLearning blog. I like his low-cost, practical approach to developing eLearning components and have been following him for years. He posted an article on visual thinking. You can find it here: Coupled with all the stuff we remember from Tufte’s Visual Information books and lecture (you do remember that, don’t you?) I think this helps us think beyond the verbal explanation or screen capture/simulation trap. What I like best about it is the idea of visual shorthand. However, there is a certain danger inherent in his approach.

The first is the topic of visual thinking to begin with. He provides a brief overview here:  which introduces the concept of visual thinking and sets the stage for his “How to Apply Visual Thinking” post. I haven’t read Roam’s books yet, but if his videois any guide, it oversimplifies the case and appears to assume that everyone thinks alike. Now, I’m not going to launch into a learning styles thing, but my own experience has demonstrated that different people respond to different types of explanations differently. For example, when I want directions, I want to see a map. I don’t need words. Prefer not to have them, as a matter of fact. My wife is just the opposite. She has no use for the map but wants turn-by-turn verbal directions. I believe this is related to deeper cognitive processes because I’ve noticed it affects how we approach a lot of tasks and other information-intense activities. It isn’t a difference of learning styles so much as it is cognitive styles.

So when Tom contrasts verbal with visual learning, he neglects to take into consideration that there are varieties of visual learners and this needs to be taken into consideration. Mind Maps or Concept Maps are often portrayed as free-form stream-of-consciousness diagrams people draw to show relationships between info-bits. In my experience, these are not the least bit helpful in promoting recall for my particular cognitive style. A map should represent an “actual” structure for people with my cognitive style. Things have to have an organic relationship with multiple levels of meaning to satisfy my inherent sense of How The World Should Be. In other words, what Tufte describes as being “information dense” is what I find most satisfying.

And it is the WORST thing for rapid e-learning.

What? Did I just say that? Yes. Yes, I did.

When developing software demos and simulations from screen captures, there is often WAY too much visual information on the screen for good visual learning to take place. In these cases, I would recommend making judicious use of the Blur Tool to obscure extraneous stuff. This is one form of visual shorthand. It eliminates potential distractions before they happen. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for me is to provide less information instead of more. Rather than doing a screen-by-screen capture of the steps I need to follow, maybe a hand-drawn diagram of essential steps would be better. Yes, I will need to see the real thing eventually, but for learning purposes, maybe a cartoon will teach me more than actual screen shots. Lee Lefever of Common Craftunderstands this and uses cartoon cutouts exclusively.

If nothing else, I think this highlights the contrast between online learning and offline learning. Offline, I want information dense handouts that I can explore at my leisure. Online, if I have to look at it more than two minutes, I’m going to give up on it. This includes lots of text, complicated drawings, or intricately detailed diagrams. It’s not going to take me long to look at it, even if it’s designed for long attention spans.

Just something to think about.

In other news, if you want a quick outline on Training Needs Analysis, I came across this: If the client or business partner wants an outline of what it is that we need to do, this might be a helpful guide for them. It also helps us document the list of things we’ve accomplished during that phase when it looks like we “aren’t doing anything,” despite being very busy.

And for the final freebie, I ran into this set of tips for creating scenario-based learning: This is mostly an advertisement, but it also echoes the theme above – keep things simple and don’t get so caught up in the details that the learners become distracted.

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