When I was a novice teacher, I was frustrated by the fact that, when it came to tackling revision in the run-up to my A-level students’ exams, so many of them had no memory of my teaching the topic in the first place. Since leaving education 10 years ago to work in learning and development with adults, I have come to learn the underlying reasons that learners forget – and that understanding those reasons is crucially important.

In a 2006 research article, Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark argued that learning leads to a change in long-term memory. Self-evidently, you can’t have learned something you’ve forgotten, and forgetting is usually a consequence of encountering new learning just once and of engaging with it only at a superficial level.

We can use cognitive science to inform how we structure and lead any learning opportunity – from a team meeting or keynote speech to a longer-term learning program – so that it has maximum impact. One of the key pieces of research in this area comes from Daniel Willingham, who argues that memory is “the residue of thought.” Consequently, if we want our learners to remember what we teach them, we need to focus on maximizing deep thinking. Here are three practical ways to do so.

1. Plan Learning Backward.

Start with the end of the program, and decide what you want learners to remember. Then, plan how the training can ensure they are thinking hard about that concept or skill. If there is too much new information to pack into the time available, don’t expect learners to remember it all.

This idea was exemplified by a high street store’s new hire training program, which I was asked to review several years ago. I found 43 different items of knowledge in the first two-hour session! When I spoke to the trainers who regularly led this session, they all spoke about how little of this knowledge new staff retained.

When designing training, reflect on these questions:

  • What do I want learners to remember from my session?
  • How will I make sure there is maximum time to engage in thinking hard about that new knowledge or skill?

2. Activate Your Inner Columbo.

Effective questioning is a key skill in creating deep thinking in learners. For the British TV detective inspector Columbo, it was the probing nature of his questioning that played a key role in his success. Carefully considered questioning will not only create deeper thinking, but it will also expose any potential misunderstandings and areas of confusion that learners.

Sitting in on a training session led by a member of my training team, I was impressed with the way she was able to deepen the thinking of participants through her questioning. I asked her afterwards how she did it, and her answer was that it was something she explicitly planned for. It didn’t happen naturally, and it wasn’t something she left to chance.

Here are four fertile areas to focus questions on:

  • Probing for proof of clarity about processes and outcomes
  • Focusing thinking on causes and effects
  • Seeking evidence from learners on their reasoning
  • Focusing learners on planning for action

When designing training, reflect on these questions:

  • How deep does questioning push learners’ thinking?
  • Where are there natural opportunities for questioning?

3. Take Thinking Deeper.

A final strategy to maximize retention of new learning is to create multiple opportunities for learners to think deeply about it. While working with a learning development team to redesign its organization’s tablet-based learning program, we focused on reviewing each module with the objective of building in challenges so that we could ensure deeper thinking. These challenges included:

  • Applying new skills to “real life”
  • Looking for patterns
  • Developing connections with other aspects of learning
  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Making predictions
  • Ranking
  • Spotting mistakes
  • Deconstructing models of excellence
  • Explaining causes

When designing training, reflect on these questions:

  • Where are there opportunities for deeper thinking?
  • Which of the challenges on the list would be useful additions to the program?

Think carefully about what learners will be thinking about, and how deeply they will be thinking about it. If we want our learning programs to lead to enhanced knowledge and skills and long-term improvement in performance, then we have to plan and lead them so that learners think deeply – that’s what they’ll remember.

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