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Compassion Skills

Helping Learners Remember What They Learn: 4 Time-Tested Principles

Highly competent instructional designers and professionals now make the most out of scientific research. They usually incorporate new insights, test them and repeat what works. Over time, the weaker insights falter then fade while the stronger ones remain. These scientific principles that stood the test of time are really worth looking at. Here are four of the best:


1) The Spacing Effect

In 1885, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found that people forget a whopping 80% of material they recently learned within 24 hours. This discovery led him to the so-called "Forgetting Curve." Ebbinghaus' remarkable body of research on learning and forgetting, which is still applicable today, showed us that:

  • It's much harder to retain meaningless information.
  • It's much easier to re-learn material than the first time.
  • Learners will experience great success by spreading out their study sessions over time, not by engaging in one-night cram sessions.
  • Instructors and designers can help learners store information in the long-term memory by repeating instruction and spacing it out over time.


Pay special attention to the last sentence. Researchers in the field of learning and memory usually call it "the spacing effect." Here's how you can apply it in practice:

Focus on Longer Spacings

The spacing effect doesn't merely advocate repetitions of the same concept. It actually talks about spaced repetitions over time. And studies have found that longer spacings are more effective in terms of long-term retention.

Longer means long enough to allow students to rest and absorb information—but not too long for them to forget their lessons completely.


Vary Your Repetitions

You don't have to adhere to the same type of learning activity. That will only bore students. Repetitions can be presented through different learning media (text, audio, video, images, charts, etc). 

Start with simple quizzes spaced over days or weeks. Follow up with practical training to help students retain information.


2) The Funnel Approach

A funnel is wide at the top, narrow at the bottom. It's an apt metaphor for an effective learning approach, that is, from general to specific.

You have probably used the same general to specific format. Take, for instance, how you organized or outlined courses into chapters or sections. From a bird's-eye view, the framework you used flows from the general to the specific, from the bigger picture to the smaller details.

The funnel approach helps students recall or retrieve information more effectively. It logically and efficiently presents data in a less intimidating and in a more friendly way.


3) The von Restorff Effect

Also known as the isolation effect, the von Restorff effect explains how we remember things that stand out. Humans, von Restorff tells us, pay more attention to things that are noticeable unfamiliar, different or unusual. Something markedly odd, say a red-colored word in a list of five items, will be more memorable.

But what about long lists? The psychologist-pediatrician von Restorff suggest to style elements in the middle differently to make them memorable. Here are some other examples to try:

  • In storytelling, use an unusual yet still believable plot. An odd name of a character or place is enough to attract attention and arouse interest.
  • In writing, try a new word or an unusual sentence construction. Just be careful not to make sentences needlessly complex or sound forced.
  • In creating presentations, challenge a traditional format and be creative. Something atypical yet well-implemented works.
  • Use images that stand apart from chunks of paragraphs or lines of texts.
  • If images are too common, try audio or video.
  • Stylize texts for emphasis. Use a different color or bold and italicize them. Make headlines or sections bigger than paragraph texts.


4) The Chunking Principle

You probably heard about this before. The technique demands you group units of information into a number of units or chunks. Chunking according to category, relevance or any other variable makes it easier for students to process and remember information. It allows them to better associate, recall and focus on a certain group of information. Effective chunking, of course, is all about making sense of information. Don’t do it just for the sake of breaking content into pieces. Do it to make information more meaningful.

The chunk can be anything—a word, a series of numbers, a small number of items, a string of letters. George A. Miller, the Harvard psychologist who formulated the chunking principle, said that the working memory could process “seven plus or minus two” chunks or units of information at once. Other cognitive researchers, however, found that the short-term memory can efficiently process a maximum number of “four plus or minus one” chunks at once. But they also found that the limited capacity of our working memory hinges on the type and features of the information and the abilities of a person.

Are you actually using one (or some) of these principles? If not, it's time you start applying them to create more effective material.



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