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Memory Retention: Instructional Design Tips #1: The Plan


Dr. Michael

Hanchett Hanson

When I talk to most trainers about memory retention systems, they get it immediately. They can see why tests given right after information is presented are not measures of long-term learning, why systematic reinforcement of information over time is needed and how much that reinforcement could help the people they train. The Hickory algorithm predicts when each individual learner will forget any given piece of information and sends a review question. With less than two minutes of reviews per day, learners encode about 90% all of the information they have learned into long-term memory.

Trainers see the value and of this. They also get that the Hickory system will not replace other training. A memory retention system will, however, make the entire training program more effective and efficient. Trainers and managers still have to motivate and coach. That expensive face-to-face time can be leveraged, however. Having completed Hickory lessons, employees come into classes or coaching sessions knowing the facts they need to communicate so less time is spent getting everyone up to speed. Then the strategies they learn in the class are reinforced through Hickory afterward so that they remember what they have learned.

These trainers want to use Hickory, and they find that integrating Hickory into their training systems is surprisingly easy. Designing any curricula and writing training materials requires thought, though, and every organization confronts a slightly different training challenge. In this and the next four posts, I am going to talk about how to deploy Hickory in an organization that has an established training system. (In a future set of posts I’ll talk about new training programs where little is currently in place.)

Consider an actual client example. This client relies heavily on customer service for the success of the business. There are five specialized customer teams. They all go through a two-week onboarding conducted by trainers onsite at the office where they will work. All teams go through the same training the first week of onboarding and then specialized training for their team the second week. After the onboarding, the customer service agents start to work, but they also have advanced training sessions periodically, teaching them how to handle more complicated customer issues. Variations on this situation might include a home study period of distance learning, with online modules, e-learning and video conferences.  Hickory can do a lot for this kind of program. Day-to-day during the onboarding

Hickory helps learners remember the massive amount of information they cover so that it’s easier to build on previous days’ learning and less review time is needed. As a result, employees are better prepared on day one of their new job. Later, Hickory introduces more difficult application exercises on material already covered, as well as principles for the advanced training as pre-work. Sounds great. But how do you make sure the parts all fit together?

Functions of the Plan

Whenever a new client joins Hickory, our Instructional Designers work with the client to develop a long-term plan for integrating Hickory into the curriculum.

Of course, you can also add and remove lessons as needed. The plan is a tool, always under revision. For example, trainers may find that new employees are not understanding a particular step of a new fraud investigation procedure. Adding a Hickory lesson can help ensure that those who didn’t understand the first time, get it later. Even these unplanned additions are made easier because there is a structured plan in place. As a tool, the plan serves three purposes.

  1. The plan ensures a key function of Hickory – reinforcing the underlying learning arc. Good training moves from basic and general principles to specifics. Too many details too early can undermine the integration of principal knowledge. The curriculum plan will ensure that Hickory builds on early questions about basic issues with more demanding questions about applications. Even if learners need to begin their training with detailed learning modules, the Hickory integration will reinforce movement from fundamental principles to detailed examples.  
  2. The plan leads to an coherent and efficient learning system. Often just seeing each step of the company’s existing curriculum laid out in relation to the Hickory memory retention system will suggest ways of making the original curriculum more efficient. Even if not initially apparent, In the process of developing the Hickory lessons, we usually find ways to increase training efficiency substantially. In addition, the movement from basic to detailed knowledge, described above, also contributes to training efficiency. For example, you will want to build on early questions about basic issues with more demanding questions about applications. If not, learners just cover basic principles in the Hickory lessons, they will have very few review questions each week because they have learned the early material so well. (The Hickory algorithm pushes questions that learners find easy farther and farther into the future so that only information the learner is about to forget comes up in reviews.) If there aren’t later, detailed application questions to review, we are losing the opportunity to continue to deepen the learner’s understanding. Also, to maintain engagement – ensure that the learners think of Hickory as a useful tool –  there need to be some challenging questions every week.
  3. Learners need to know what to expect. Even more than other training formats, it is crucial that the Hickory users understand what is expected of them and what is coming next. This makes sense when we think about it from the user’s perspective. In a classroom session, whatever the agenda, the user has to be at a particular place for a specific period of time. For e-learning, the user has to complete the module and then it’s done. With daily review questions, though, the learner can easily think, “I’m going to have to answer questions on this material forever,” or “The reviews are always on the same materials, I’ll put off doing it until next week.” Knowing when more lessons will be assigned helps the learners apportion their time and pace their work.
  4. The plan allows efficient production. The Hickory team knows when lessons need to be written in order to launch on time, and the client can plan time to review the content Hickory writes.

What the Plan Includes

The Hickory instructional design team works develops the curriculum plan from detailed review of current training materials, attending training sessions and discussions with trainers and managers. The result is a detailed blueprint. For each step of the existing training process, the Hickory curriculum integration needs to include:

  • What content from that step of the training to include in the memory retention system (Hickory).
  • How many Hickory lessons to use and whether they are used as pre-work or after training key-point reviews.
  • How long to focus on each set of lessons before they are replaced or supplemented by further application lessons or more in-depth lessons.

Again, this is a relatively long-term plan, covering 6-18 months of training. Here’s a schematic of how a Hickory plan rolls out.[Image of schematic tab from the model plan.]Also remember that the plan is a “living document.” It is continually revised from the learner data that Hickory tracks, new trainer and manager insights and company changes in processes and protocols. If, for example, Hickory sees that most of the learners are having problems with questions on a particular topic, there are a number of possible actions – an additional Hickory lesson on the topic may be added, current questions may be clarified if needed, the in-person training may be revised or additional coaching on the topic added.  

A typical plan will include 40-100 Hickory lessons. Part of the appeal of Hickory for the learners if that lessons are quick and easy to complete. Therefore, each lesson is 15-20 cards, with a mix of instructional cards and questions. Note that there are generally 2-5 lessons per week – more (3-5) during intensive onboarding, when the employees are not otherwise working, and fewer 2-3 for ongoing practice in more advanced applications. Here, we encounter a basic change in thinking for most of us in training. We are used to thinking about training events that provide intensive transfer of information and skills – the class session, the training module, the coaching session. Hickory, however, works as a steady stream of learning assistance. At 2-3 lessons per week, the amount of information covered – and remembered! – is quite substantial, three, six or twelve months out. It’s like compound interest: at first it doesn’t seem like much but week after week you see the growth in knowledge and effectiveness.

Now that you see how the rollout works, the importance of choosing the content to include in the memory retention system is probably obvious. Everything cannot and should not be included. How to make those choices will be the subject of the next post on Instructional Design Tips.

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