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The Science of Learning, Part 3: For Stronger Learning, Build in Memory Triggers

by Kirsten Liston

Two weeks ago, we kicked off a blog series on the science of learning. Each week, we’re reviewing a key aspect about how humans learn, absorb information, and remember.

So far, we’ve covered two “simple and practical strategies” that you can use to increase the impact of a compliance learning program:

This week’s post tackles “retrieval cues”—basically, strategies you can use to program learning so it’s easier to recall later. For a learning designer, these can be a lot of fun.

To Extend Learning, Use Retrieval Cues

When I was 10, I had a small part in a school talent show that featured the song “Fifty, Nifty United States.”

Thanks to that song’s chorus, I now know the 50 U.S. states in alphabetical order, from Alabama to Wyoming. In fact, I can still recite them at a moment’s notice—beginning with any one of the states—even if it has been years since the last time I tried it.

Maybe for you it’s the Celozzi-Ettleson commercials, whose “Where you always save more money!” tagline is deeply familiar to anyone who grew up near Chicago in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Or maybe it’s Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, or any one of a parade of characters hawking sugary breakfast cereals.

Jingles, songs, and slogans are able take up near-permanent space in our brain because teachers, would-be Don Drapers, and autocrats all understand something crucial about learning:

Getting information IN to the brain is only the first step. To really learn something, you also need to be able to get the information back OUT.

Retrieval is Key to Learning

Have you ever tried to remember something and failed—and yet it really felt like the information was in there somewhere, you just couldn’t find it?

Research studies support your impression: The information IS somewhere in the big filing cabinet of your brain. It hasn’t fallen out or disappeared; you just can’t locate it at the moment.

There’s virtually no limit to how much learning we can remember. . . . Our retrieval capacity, though, is severely limited. Most of what we’ve learned is not accessible to us at any given moment.

In other words, when you learn something and then forget it, you haven’t actually forgotten the information—you’ve just lost the cue for retrieving it.

Memory cues are in limited supply, and so as we take in information (which we do pretty much constantly in life), our ever-efficient brain recycles old, unused ones.

The key word here is “unused.” The brain only replaces cues you don’t seem to need—leaving new, frequently-used, or really vivid memory cues intact.

But there are ways to game the system. Anything that makes information easier to remember will give its associated cues more staying power—even when it’s linked to large or complex bodies of knowledge.

Pros use mnemonic devices like:

  • Rhymes and taglines
  • Catchy songs
  • Vivid imagery
  • Acronyms

Anything that evokes intense emotions will also generate strong memory cues. (So there’s a reason that Thai insurance commercials are designed to make you cry!)

So how can compliance programs put these devices to use? Try some of these strategies:

  • Develop slogans and taglines. I recently read some good advice for designing PowerPoint presentations: First, go ahead and write out your slides as you normally would. Then, take all that text and put it in the “notes” section of each slide. On the actual slide itself, put only a) a (related) picture, or b) three bullets with no more than six words each. If you’re designing compliance learning products, you can take a similar two-step approach: First, capture everything you want to communicate. Then, see if you can distill the key concepts down to something shorter and catchier. If you’re making an important point, see if you can turn it into a slogan or tagline you repeat frequently. For example, Threat Ready’s suite of cybersecurity products features the tagline: “Stop and Think. Don’t be the Weak Link.”
  • Think in pictures. Humans remember pictures better than words—so associating vivid mental images with abstract concepts can help make them stick. Instead of talking abstractly about cyber hackers, show them as thieves, carnivores, or predatory animals.
  • Use acronyms. Acronyms aren’t just for third graders memorizing the order of the planets in the solar system—pilots have a number of acronyms to help jog their memory in sometimes critical situations: GUMPS (a mental checklist before landing), ABCs (for emergency landings), ALARMS (emergency engine failure), FLAPS (night time equipment), and RAWFAT (pre-flight requirements).
  • Test frequently to keep memory cues strong. Yes, I’m back to the subject of testing. But all available research shows how well it works to keep learning readily accessible. In fact, with continued retrieval, even complex material can become second nature to a person so that mnemonic cues are no longer needed.

A few mnemonic devices can go a long way to helping your audience remember what they learn. Ready to make your compliance content stick? Sign up for a free consultation with the Rethink Compliance experts.

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