Why do people forget things they’ve just learned? Why do college students who cram for a test forget it all a few days or months later?

I learned about human memory and how it relates to training in May when I attended the Society for Technical Communication Summit 2019 in beautiful Denver, CO. This year the Summit offered 4 different learning tracks, and I chose the training design and development track because I produce content for JOA’s global customer training programs.

One of the most memorable (pun definitely intended) takeaways was something I learned in the half-day Designing with Memory in Mind class led by Patti Shank Ph.D. Not everything is known about how human memory works, but one thing we do know is if people don’t have the ability to process what they’ve learned, it will be lost. Not only do they need to process it, they need to DEEPLY process it. Deep processing means we learn to apply our knowledge.

Patti Shank Ph.D compares shallow and deep processing like this: “Superficial learning is when you learn something for the purpose of being able to parrot it back on a test. Or when you can recite facts and define things. And it’s not bad. It’s required for us to learn facts and concepts and all these things, somewhat out of context at times, so that we can go to deeper learning, which is learning for application.”

I love these techniques taken from Patti Shank’s Design with Memory in Mind Job Aid for helping people remember what they’ve learned. We need to analyze what actually needs to be remembered and what can be looked up later in references like a manual or quick reference card. What actually needs to be remembered should be deeply processed. Techniques to help your learners engage in deep processing include asking deep questions and asking the learners to restate what they’ve learned in their own words. Deep questions include:

  • How are they different? Similar?
  • How would you use this?
  • What does this mean?
  • What is the best approach?
  • Why wouldn’t this work?

I’m considering how I can work deep processing techniques into my customer training PowerPoints and eLearning materials.