I learnt a few things about memory during Learning Technologies last week. I also picked up some new tips for designing content to make it ‘sticky’ as well as having other strategies reconfirmed by both Stella Collins and Dr Julia Shaw.

Julia is a ‘memory hacker’ who specialises in the creation of false memories. She (for example) convinces people they have committed crimes that never even took place. That’s quite an unnerving thought… and perhaps not one that seems immediately relevant to what we do in L&D. On the other hand, knowing that memory is so vulnerable and that the neuron networks that form memories can pretty easily be broken, reshaped or augmented is useful to us because, for example, it could help us understand why someone persistently gets something wrong.

But what about what we can do to help people remember our content? As Julia said herself, it isn’t (at this level) rocket science; there are a lot of fairly simple things we can keep in mind when designing or delivering content to make it more likely to stick.

  • Be selective. We have a responsibility to filter all the information that could be included and identify what should be included. That’s not to say we should make those decisions in isolation; speaking to end users as well as the commissioning stakeholders and subject matter experts is a great way to whittle things down to the essentials.
  • Make use of external memory. When I was a teenager I knew a couple of dozen phone numbers by heart because I often needed them when making calls from public phone boxes to friends. These days, I think I only know three numbers; the rest are stored in my phone. Sometimes, knowing where information is located is as useful as (or more useful than) knowing the information itself. We need to be mindful of the distinction and design content accordingly.
  • Add colour. This doesn’t necessarily (but might, of course!) mean literally. But the brain likes the weird and wonderful. Find ways to turn basic information into more meaningful material, like using humour, shock, discomfort, surprise or delight.
  • Design multi-sensory experiences. I read one of my favourite books (The Host by Stephenie Meyer, don’t judge) for the first time at a point where I was commuting for almost three hours a day, and for some reason I had a playlist of only six songs that I listened to on repeat in the background as I read on the train. I can’t hear those songs now without being transported back to the world of The Host. And when I saw the film, it felt wrong to me to hear a different soundtrack set against the story. Think about ways to associate certain sounds, smells or sensations with your content; if that’s not possible, even consciously injecting multi-sensory language into it can make a difference.
  • Help people build memory palaces. The idea is that you give a type of memory a particular sense of place, or space. If you studied French at secondary school, you’ll have learnt about the group of verbs that use ‘etre’ as their auxiliary rather than ‘avoir’ in the perfect tense. You’ll probably have learnt those  14 verbs by rote via a mnemonic like Mrs Vandertramp? I did too, at school. But the mnemonic never really made it stick for me and I used a different technique that I’d learnt a couple of years previously in a different French club. We learnt the 14 verbs as a little rhyme that told a story of going to a house, falling over, dying, being reborn and entering the house…and so on. It’s a bit odd and a bit silly, but the verbs went in an order that let us build a story we could actually picture. That house is my memory palace for that information; since then I’ve studied French through university and lived in France, but I still remember those 14 verbs that way. So when designing content, think about opportunities to help people create memory palaces for themselves for certain types of information.

Some of these things, such as multi-sensory content being easier to remember, were covered by Stella (author of Neuroscience for Learning and Development) in her session on learning and the mind, too. Stella actually has a guide to self-directed learning which includes some more specific tips on how to make content multi-sensory, and I’ve included details of how to get that e-book at the end of this post. Stella’s session was more about how an individual can improve the chances of remembering things they learn than about how we can design content that will be remembered, but either way the additional tips she provided are useful:

  • Guesswork. Guessing something actually increases your chances of remembering it, whether you guessed correctly or not. (In a former instructional design role, we talked about ‘test then tell’ instead of ‘tell then test’, based on the same principle.) The key is to make sure you get the right answer soon after guessing.
  • Sleep. This one most of us know – sleep is critical for making memories and therefore for embedding learning longer-term. One thing I didn’t know is that, for motor skills especially, practising them in the evening before you sleep means you’re more likely to repeat the practice as you dream. Your body doesn’t respond but your mind is going through the same processes, so you’re essentially getting more practice while you sleep.
  • Reflection. Building in time to really think about what you’ve experienced and learnt is critical in embedding it in memory. This one is definitely relevant to content designers as well as individuals, as space and time for reflection is often overlooked in online experiences and sacrificed to other activities in live events.
  • Re-firing the neurons. To combat the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, you need to deliberately re-fire the initially fragile network that forms a new memory and you need to do this at intervals over an extended period of time. Again, Stella’s e-book on self-directed learning includes some tips about how exactly you can do this as an individual, some of which might also be useful for designers looking for ideas to build into their content.

As a final thought, both Stella and Julia made the important observation that memory isn’t about the past or nostalgia at all. The only reason we have it is to help us navigate the future, to predict what might happen, to improve future performance.

(Stellar Learning’s Guide to Self-Directed Learning can be downloaded for free until the end of March using the discount code LTECH00.)

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