In February, we kicked off a blog series on the science of learning. Since then, each post has addressed a key aspect about how humans learn, absorb information, and remember.

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

This week’s post tackles “priming” — steps you can take before learning even starts to make students more receptive to it.

Improve learning by preparing the audience first

The famous behavioral psychologist Robert Cialdini recently published a book called Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade.

As one Amazon commenter explains:

If you were seeking input about a business idea, would you ask someone for their “advice”, “opinion” or “expectations” about the idea? Would you think it mattered how you framed the question?

Robert Cialdini, author of Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade shares his insights and finding about the importance of framing the discussion before it actually begins.

“The basic idea of Pre-Suasion is that, by guiding preliminary attention strategically, it’s possible for a communicator to move recipients into agreement with a message before they experience it.” That is a very strong statement. But throughout the book, Mr. Cialdini gives example after example of how and why it works.

We could write a full blog series on the ideas in Cialdini’s book (the same is true of his 1984 book, the renowned Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which is required reading for anyone interested in how to motivate and persuade other humans.)

But here we’ll simply say that Cialdini’s topic of priming also shows up in the Make it Stick research — here in the form of pre-learning activities that you can incorporate to make the actual learning more durable.

When difficulty is desirable

When I was 16, I had to pass a classroom test in order to get my learner’s permit to drive.

I got one question wrong: “Name the phenomenon that causes a driver to misjudge or become unaware of his true speed as a result of prolonged traveling at high speed.”

Want to know the answer? Velocitization.

Do I recall this word several times per year for no good reason? Do I think of it every time I exit from the highway onto a quiet residential street? Yes and yes, even though several decades have passed and the word is not one bit useful to me.

Want to know why? Priming.

Make it Stick covers the topic of priming in a section called “How Effort Helps.” Here, the authors revisit their recurring theme that making learning difficult — the right kind of difficult — can yield surprisingly positive results.

Specifically, the authors explain that asking students to struggle with an answer before being shown the solution can be incredibly powerful.

As they explain, we humans are equipped to learn through trial and error. In our primitive lives, we often had to grapple with a situation with limited information or instruction — and then learn from the answer. (If right, we learned to repeat it. If wrong, we learned to try something else.)

When students are asked to struggle with a problem before being given the answer, their correct answers result in more durable learning than if they were simply given the answer in the first place. Learning is stronger because they had to reason their way to the answer, and so they understand it more deeply.

But, interestingly, even getting the answer wrong is still good for learning, because it leads to “deep processing” of the correct answer once it is supplied. (In other words: Students have to think about their answer and try to figure out why it was wrong.)

Weirdly, this phenomenon plays out even when you might think that the difficulty would cause students to lose interest. For instance:

  • Students who read an article with normal type retained less than those who read an article where the type was slightly out of focus
  • Students who received a lecture that followed the exact structure of the chapter in the textbook learned and remembered less than students who received a lecture with the topics in a different order

In other words: When your mind has to struggle a little to make sense of something, you do a better job of distilling the concepts and storing them for recall.

So is the answer that we should just make the text in compliance learning courses blurry? Probably not.

But based on the ideas in the book, there are a few strategies we might use:

  • Ask “generative” questions. You’ve already heard me say that you should test employees on compliance concepts to force them to practice retrieval, strengthening the learning. But it turns out you should also test or quiz employees before they receive any learning. Give them situations or problems and ask them to figure out the answer. Whether they’re right or wrong, the learning that follows will stick with them better than if you’d simply started with the teaching points.
  • Engage learners in warm-up activities. This suggestion has more to do with “priming” as behavioral psychologists typically describe it, and less what’s specifically covered in Make it Stick. But studies have shown that introducing people to a topic or concept before formally “teaching” them about it will lead your audience to be more receptive to the actual teaching when it comes. One way to do this is to invite people to “warm-up” activities. For instance, you might send out a news article, or invite people to explore videos and websites related to the topic. Experiencing the topic in an informal, self-guided, non-threatening way can prime your audience’s brains to accept the new information more easily.

If you’ve liked these posts so far, consider attending the European Compliance & Ethics Institute in Prague April 2-5.

On Wednesday morning, I’ll be speaking with Paul Rew, of McDougall Rew, about how you can use some of these insights from the science of learning to keep training and awareness programs up to date in the 21st century.