Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 4: Keeping it Real

Posted by Rich Mesch on May 24, 2010 5:56:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

reality check
Is there such a thing as too much reality?

In my first post on this topic, I said this:

“So how do you apply some of the rules of storytelling to our training initiatives? The key is to focus on how the world works in real life.”

The great thing about writing novels or screenplays is that you can make everything up. You’re not bound by the reality of what’s possible. But in a learning story, there needs to be some grounding in reality, however tenuous. In my simulation work, we often get hung up on reality. Does the simulation environment need to be a carbon copy of the real world? Arguably, the answer is no; one of the reasons we don’t always learn effectively is because our environments are full of distracters; your learning story can focus people on what’s important. But aren’t those distracters part of the learning experience? If you give me a nice clean environment to learn in, won’t I just have difficulty applying it in real life?

So how real do you need to get? The answer is, it depends. And not in a philosophical way. The real question is, what are the variables that need to be considered to tell the story effectively?

The most recognizable kind of simulation is probably the flight simulator. The failure to fly a plane properly will likely lead to mechanical failure, damage, and death. There are so many factors that can lead to failure (gauges, mechanics, alertness, weather, etc,) that flight simulators need to be completely realistic. The adherence to reality in a flight simulator is remarkable.

But in many environments, we want learners to focus on specific items. Where, in fact, presenting the whole reality of the job might actually be confusing. So it’s generally okay to leave stuff out or consolidate stuff. How do you that? Well, there are no hard-and-fast rules, but here are some guidelines:

Make sure you the stuff you leave out won’t distract the learner.
For example, if the learner works on a team where all of the members are in different cities, they might be distracted by a story that involves a scenario where everybody is co-located; however, they might be fine with a story where some team members are co-located and some are distributed.

I worked on a customer service simulation design with a company that made many different types of paper and packaging products. The client was very concerned that no one scenario (food packaging, office paper, print stock, etc.) would resonate with every member of the audience. Ultimately, we made the decision that the company in the simulation made bottles instead of paper. This way, the manufacturing and customer service environment was very recognizable to learners, but they weren’t distracted by the fact that the company didn’t make their exact paper product.

2. Make sure you leave in the stuff that makes the job challenging.
If we go all the way back to the beginning of this series, we established that one of the powers of storytelling in learning is that you can focus on those areas that make a job challenging. Is it a demanding boss? An industry that’s consolidating? Technology that changes rapidly? Clients who don’t know what they want? The power of storytelling is incorporating these elements in a way that affects people emotionally.

3. Focus on the element of time
For example, some businesses are seasonal; in retail, Fall is all about planning for the holiday season, Summer is all about planning for back-to school. If you leave this out, your story won’t have resonance. Also true is the impact of time; some decisions look different if you play them out over time; make sure your learners can see the short-term and long-term impact.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Storytelling, Simulation

The Science Behind Learning: Cognitive Tips and How Tos for Corporate Training (Part 4)

Posted by Reni Gorman on May 16, 2010 11:48:00 PM

by Reni Gorman
Tip #4: Find out what your learners know, or think they know.

Cognitive Psychology: Draw out pre-existing conceptions and, more importantly pre-existing misconceptions.

Why (Justification):

“Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 14-15) An excellent example comes from Vosniadou and Brewer (1989). Children think the earth is flat because of their pre-existing experiences with it such as walking on it and looking at it. When told the earth is round children picture a pancake instead of a sphere. They must be told it is spherical along with explanations as to why they have experienced it as flat in order for them to really learn and accept this new information.

New information learned can have an effect on how well you remember older information learned especially if the new information causes a conflict with the old and creates interference. (Anderson, 2000) The good news is that if we learn something new that contradicts what we thought in the past (retroactive interference), we will eventually forget the old information and remember the new information.

If learners have misconceptions that are not brought to light and corrected, they will never be able to effectively build on that knowledge in the future. Knowing what your learners know will also help you set the base-line and pace for the course. Many times instructors assume that their learners have a certain baseline knowledge, when in fact they do not… or they may think they know but their base line understanding is incorrect.

How (Application):

When designing your course, you must learn as much as you can about your learners. Are they beginners, intermediate, or advanced? What do they know, what do they need to know and what may they think they know or know incorrectly? If you can’t reach out to your learners before class then anticipate as much as you can… For example, you can think about the most common misconceptions about each of your main points. Try to come up with a question for each main point, the answer to which will clarify the misconception. For example: Do you think that pre-existing knowledge makes a difference in how people learn?


Anderson, J. R. (2000). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications: Fifth Edition. New York, N.Y.: Worth Publishers.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000).
How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Vosnaidou, S., & Brower, W. F. (1989).
The Concept of the Earth’s Shape: A study of Conceptual Change in Childhood. Unpublished paper. Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois, Champaign, Illinois.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Cognition, Metacognition, Retroactive Interference, Interference

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 3: The Predictable Unexpected

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 29, 2010 5:02:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

Stories are compelling when you think you know what’s going to happen next, and then the story throws in a twist. You can do the same thing in your learning stories; the only issue is that you need some grounding in reality.

Movies freusual1quently build interest by inserting compelling story twists. I won’t include any spoilers, but most people will admit to being thrown for a loop when they learned the truth about Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense or who Keyser Soze really was in The Usual Suspects. But the technique is nothing new; Alfred Hitchock shocked the movie-going world in 1960 when he killed off the main character in Psycho ten minutes into the film.

One of the oddest twists is in the film Magnolia; themagnolia frogs story takes a twist when it unexpectedly starts raining frogs. And perhaps that’s the key difference between movie storytelling and learning storytelling. If your story completely deviates from reality, you’ll probably lose your audience. So your story probably shouldn’t have any froggy precipitation.

For learning stories, I recommend the use of the “Predictable Unexpected.” That means, create events that are unexpected in the context of your story, but typical in the real world. For example, in a sales simulation I designed, you spend a long time building a relationship with a client, in hopes that he will introduce you to an executive. If you successfully build the relationship, the client agrees to invite you to a meeting with the executive. When you try to return his call, you get a message that his phone line has been disconnected. He’s been fired, he’s not going to get you that meeting with the executive, and you have to begin the process over again.  The event was unexpected, but completely realistic within the scope of the storyline. And still completely gut-wrenching.

We’ll take this a little further in the next post, where we’ll talk about the role of reality in storytelling. How much reality is too much?

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Storytelling, Simulation

Attributes of Effective Coaching: Coaching Appreciatively

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 26, 2010 3:46:00 AM

Coaching is one of my favorite topics to research and discuss. That might surprise you since I’ve written the majority of my blog entries on transformative learning; however, there’s a distinct synergy between the two. Think of coaching as an enabler of the transformative learning process. Coaching can be a catalyst for personal perspective transformation.

Yet, the focus here is firmly on coaching—more specifically, the coach. My manager asked me yesterday to share my opinion on why some individuals don’t make effective coaches. I cited the propensity some people have to “tell” versus “ask.” Some coaches struggle with asking powerful and probing questions. But these were my opinions based upon my study of the topic and experience as a coach; I wanted more time to chew on his question some more and synthesize my thoughts.

In the end, as I look across the literature on coaching and recount my own personal experience, I’d have to say that it appears to boil down to the coach’s approach to the coaching relationship.

Approach 1: If the coach approaches the relationship intent on addressing the coachee’s gaps or weaknesses, then problem-solving becomes the main goal of the coaching interaction. The relationship is built on addressing the coachee’s problems or deficiencies.

Approach 2: If the coach approaches the relationship intent on having the coachee reference past achievements and capitalize on key strengths to achieve a vision for success, then positive change becomes the main goal of the coaching interaction. The relationship is built on positive exploration in service of meaningful change.

What approach is more motivating and inspiring? What approach is more likely to lead to sustained change?

The second—and more positive—approach to coaching appears to be more effective in eliciting individual and organizational change. The evidence is well presented in the text Appreciative Coaching: A Positive Process for Change. Its authors are scholars and experienced consultants in the area of organizational development who have built a coaching model on the core precepts of Appreciative Inquiry. As one of the authors aptly states, “We get more of what we focus on.” Therefore, it would stand to reason: Focus on problems, get more of them. Focus on positives, get more of them.

So, to answer my manager’s question, which is what provoked this blog entry in the first place: Effective coaches are ones that adopt an appreciative approach to change and coach to possibility instead of deficiency.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Coaching, Leadership, Talent Management

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 2: 7 Tips for Effective Storytelling

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 22, 2010 4:10:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

storytelling in learning

In the first post in this series, I provided an overview for integrating storytelling into learning; now, in the spirit of translating all complex ideas into a few bullet points, I wanted to provide some tips.  These tips come from my simulation design experience, but really, they apply to most learning opportunities. While storytelling is more art than science, here are a few points to keep in mind:
  1. Engage the heart as well as the mind. The workplace is emotional, so don’t be afraid to get under people’s skin. People should feel elated when they succeed, uncomfortable when they fail.
  2. Focus on what makes the job challenging. Is it the complexity of the product line? The demands of your boss? The intimidation factor of talking to a well-educated physician? Don’t shy away from the tough stuff.
  3. Show, don’t tell. This is one of the oldest writer’s rules. Instead of writing “he was nervous,” show your character’s behavior, and let your user/reader conclude that he’s nervous.
  4. Storytelling needn’t involve narrative. While a novelist employs narrative as her primary tool, the simulation designer has many more tools available. Computer users can only tolerate reading in small doses. Tell your story with video, audio, graphics and animation.
  5. Don’t feel you have to tell the entire story of a job in a simulation. Simulation stories work best when they are focused just on those parts of the job that are complex or difficult. In designing a sales simulation for a large pharmaceutical customer, we determined that reps did well at product detailing, but had opportunities for improvement in opening and closing calls. We designed a simulation that incorporated the entire call, but focused decisions specifically on openings and closings.
  6. Good stories demonstrate actions and consequences. Your user will be more engaged if you create a sense of anticipation, a driving desire to know what happens next.  Watch the way an audience leans forward in their seats during an exciting movie, and determine what will get your simulation user leaning forward at his computer.
  7. Don’t lose sight of the basics. Good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They chart a logical progression of conflict, resolution, and conclusion. That’s part of what makes the process of reading a book or watching a movie so satisfying—the feeling that you’ve shared a journey with the characters. Make sure your story develops throughout your course or simulation and reaches a satisfying conclusion (or potentially several satisfying conclusions!) at the end.



Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Storytelling, Simulation

Using Storytelling in Learning, Part 1: Yelling at the Movie Screen

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 20, 2010 6:37:00 AM

cinema photo
by Rich Mesch

Storytelling is one of the most effective yet underused methods for enhancing adult learning.  Ever heard someone yell at characters on a movie screen or talk back to the television? Ever stay up way too late one night because you had to read just one more chapter of a best seller? Ever rearrange your schedule to make sure you’re home for the conclusion of the cliffhanger episode of your favorite TV series?

Odds are good that you answered “yes” to at least one of the questions above, and very possibly to all of them. It’s not surprising. For many cultures, storytelling is one of the most pervasive methods of sharing information. A good story speaks to our minds, our hearts, our deepest emotions. When we’re truly wrapped up in a great story, we sometimes do things that are irrational; we speak to characters we know are fictional, we give up sleep that we desperately need, we laugh or cry or rejoice or despair over the lives of people we know are completely made up, completely fabricated. We’re human beings; we are able to connect on many levels.

We hate to admit it, but the workplace is irrationally emotional as well. On a good workday, we can feel fear, anger, joy, despair and elation. But for some reason, when we train people to be effective in this environment, our approach too often becomes dry and bloodless. We engage the mind (if we’re lucky), but not the heart. As a result, we reduce the likelihood that we will gain learner attention, that our message will be heard, let alone retained and applied.

I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my career working on performance simulations. The word “simulation” means many different things to different people. But at its core, simulations provide a realistic environment for learners to try new behaviors and experience the likely outcomes. And this is where storytelling becomes critical. If I’m going to truly apply new behaviors, I need to feel the same pressures, trade-offs, and barriers to change that I will feel in the real world. If those aspects are not present, I’m likely to dismiss the whole enterprise as “just another training exercise.” There are good simulations and bad simulations (and really bad simulations that don’t simulate anything). Some interpret simulation as a complex multiple choice test, which isn’t even close. Ultimately, what raises a mediocre simulation to a great simulation is the ability of the designers to engage the learner with a compelling story.

Novels, movies, and TV may be more appropriate metaphors for adult learning than classrooms are. The key factor is immersion; an experience that takes you out of the here-and-now and fully involves you in another environment. When people care about how the story turns out, they will start making decisions based on their internal assumptions; they will start getting distracted from the textbook “right” way and start making decisions emotionally, like they do in real life. This creates an opportunity for not just learning, but real behavior change—by allowing you to examine what drives your behavior in the first place.

So how do you apply some of the rules of storytelling to our training initiatives? The key is to focus on how the world works in real life. There’s tons of good leadership content out there, and most of it is not hard to understand. So why is there such a shortage of good leaders? Because when someone actually tries to apply this stuff, they meet challenges, encounter resistance, and need to change the way processes and systems work. Although they may agree that this is the “right stuff,” they don’t do it, because the risk and effort of doing it “right” outweighs the potential consequences of doing it “wrong.” Your story needs to address that. The same constraints and pressures that make your content difficult to implement in the real world need to exist in your training solution. Otherwise, your users will recognize it as a work of fiction, separate and divorced from the real world. Nobody can consider how to overcome the barriers to success until they comprehend what the barriers to success actually look like.

In the next post in this series, we'll review 7 key tips to using storytelling in your learning. See you there!

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Storytelling, Simulation

The Science Behind Learning: Cognitive Tips and How Tos for Corporate Training (Part 3)

Posted by Reni Gorman on Apr 11, 2010 12:36:00 PM

by Reni Gorman

Tip #3: Present main points first (the ones you wrote in Tip #2), followed by details, wrapped up by summaries of main points.

Cognitive Psychology: Presenting main points first primes learners and activates associated knowledge pathways. Take the Serial Position Curve into consideration by presenting main points up front, and as part of summaries at the end. Present material using the PQ4R study method (this is a great method, see below for details).

Why (Justification):

When I say: “It is very important to design your course material to facilitate learning with understanding.” Hopefully you deeply processed and understood the sentence and every associated concept you know has just been activated in your brain, this is referred to as associative priming. In addition, activation should spread to the surrounding concepts as well. This is called spreading activation. (Anderson, 2000) Now that you are primed, and have activated your relevant knowledge, you will be much faster at retrieving related knowledge to map new knowledge onto, bring up possible misconceptions, and prepare your mind to learn.

In a study by Meyer and Schvaneveldt (1971) subjects judged associated word pairs such as bread and butter, a lot faster than nurse and butter. These results indicate that when they saw the word bread, it associatively primed the word butter increasing recognition and judgment speed.

The PQ4R study method (Thomas & Robinson, 1972) was designed to help students learn and remember text from a chapter in a textbook. It encourages students to: Preview, Question, Read, Reflect, Recite, Review. To conduct the preview, Anderson (2000) recommends the following: “Read the section headings and summary statements to get a general sense of where the chapter is going and how much material will be devoted to each topic. Try to understand each summary statement and ask yourself whether this is something you knew or believed before reading the text.” (p. 5) It seems that by doing this we are priming ourselves not just for what is to come, but the organization of what is to come, called advanced organizers.

In a study by Frase (1975), subjects who received advanced organizers scored better on tests, then the group who did not receive advanced organizers.

Hierarchical encoding of serial-order information means that “subjects store long sequences hierarchically, with sub-sequences as units in larger sequences.” (Anderson, 2000, p. 132) Therefore, learners create groups and subgroups and organize them hierarchically as they learn to store and later to recall information from memory.

Consider the study conducted by Klahr, Chase and Lovelace (1983) based on subjects speed at recalling certain letters of the alphabet. In the alphabet song, pauses indicate the end of a group and the start of another. [(ABCD, EFG) (HIJK, LMNOP)] [(QRS, TUV) (WX, YZ)] A subject may be given the letter “K” and asked to generate the next letter. Generation times were faster at the beginning of a group and progressively slower toward the end of a group. This represents the front anchoring effect that subjects access the beginning of each group first, then search for the target from there.

“Propositions information can be represented in networks that display the relations among concepts.” (Anderson, 2000, p. 151) Propositional networks are also referred to as a semantic network: of or related to meaning. Presenting all the main points upfront will allow the main points to be the front anchors for the details to come. This will lay the foundation for the conceptual framework (you created in step #1) to be the main organizational network for the information.

How (Application):

1. Create a good clear title for each section of your course that will help get your learners thinking about the information you are about to present. That means using titles that clearly communicate the topic you are about the cover.

A bad example is: Interesting New Findings.

A much better title would be: Interesting and New Findings in How People Learn.

2.  Begin creating an advanced organizer by listing your outline with your nice clear titles and the corresponding main points. Remember that each section or chunk has a main point. There are main points for concepts as well as sub-concepts. Tip: if you notice you have too many main points for a section… try to find a logical break and break it up! (Remember +or-7 from tip #2) The main points are very important. If the student never gets past your advanced organizer and only studies the main points what is the most important information that you want them to walk away knowing?

3.  Since learners tend to remember information presented in the beginning and, even more so, at the end, it is a good idea to present main points in the beginning and at the end. What you have just created can also be used as your summary. (Later we will add questions to the advanced organizer... making it slightly different from your summary.)


Anderson, J. R. (2000). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications: Fifth Edition. New York, N.Y.: Worth Publishers.

Frase, L. T., (1975). Prose processing. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 9.) New York: Academic Press.

Klahr, D., Chase, W. Go, & Lovelace, E. A. (1983). Structure and process in alphabetic retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 9, 462-477.

Meyer, D. E., & Schvaneveldt, R. W. (1971). Facilitation in recognizing pairs of words: Evidence of a dependence between retrieval operations. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 90, 227-234.

Thomas, E. L., & Robinson, H. A., (1972). Improving reading in every class: A sourcebook for teachers. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Cognition

Transformative Learning, Part 5: The Value of Reflection

Posted by Rich Mesch on Apr 1, 2010 9:56:00 AM

Last night, I attended an ASTD Corporate SIG meeting where a panel of speakers shared their talent management and development best practices. As one of the speakers described his company’s first-level manager program, he said something that struck me as curious. He stated that participants in this program rolled their eyes when they were asked to spend time reflecting on the course content. Self-reflection, he said, was not initially embraced by these new leaders in training.

Why, I wondered? Why would a call for introspection prompt this reaction? Maybe participants didn’t understand the value of self reflection. Maybe they didn’t know that reflection—namely, critical reflection—has the potential to lead to transformative learning.

Taking a step back, I realized that the value proposition for self-reflection isn’t something we talk about a lot. Given that, I thought I’d identify at least two value drivers for reflection and encourage you to add to this list.

Value Driver 1: Reflection challenges limiting assumptions

All of us hold beliefs and assumptions based upon our previous life experiences and our socially-constructed norms. Critical self-reflection empowers us to challenge those assumptions. By asking the following questions…What is it that I assume? What’s the origin of that assumption? Why do I hold that assumption as truth?...we have the potential to identify our constraining beliefs, entertain alternatives, and shift our perspective. This shift in perspective followed by a resulting change in behavior is indicative of transformation. (See writings on critical reflection by Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield.) Think of the potential value in asking leaders to reflect critically on their current leadership practices. By doing so, we can prime them to grow and change.

Value Driver 2: Reflection aids in the integration of multiple perceptions

Many leadership development and coaching initiatives incorporate stakeholder feedback for the leader on his or her performance. Reflection on stakeholder assessment data is vitally important to leaders’ personal and professional development. When leaders take the time to understand the perceptions others have of their actions, why they have them, and how they empower or constrain them, they can develop significantly from the experience. Reflection is essential to integrating these multiple perspectives with one’s own. Without reflection, any leader would be hard pressed to develop an effective action plan to close gaps and capitalize on successes.

What other benefits are there to reflection? Share your thoughts. Hopefully, we’ll turn those critics of reflection into converts and eliminate their eye rolls.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Transformative Learning, Leadership

Virtual Immersive Environments: From Theory to Practice, Part 3: The View from IBM

Posted by Rich Mesch on Mar 22, 2010 4:52:00 AM

by Rich Mesch

[This article explores the impact that IBM has had on the use of VIEs in business. Today’s entry is the first of at least two that are based on an interview I did with Chuck Hamilton, one of the key visionaries responsible for IBM’s commitment to VIEs.]

When you talk about the use of Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) in the corporate world, you can’t help but talk about IBM. IBM has been one of the earliest and most fervent adopters of VIEs for various business uses. While other corporations are dipping their collective toe in the water, what made IBM dive into the deep end? To answer that question, I was fortunate enough to get some time with Chuck Hamilton, the head of Virtual Learning Strategy at IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning in Vancouver, BC.

Chuck works with a diverse and talented group at IBM. He shares, “We’re sort of the go-to people for learning delivery across IBM. We are very seasoned people with expertise in 100 different angles around the intersection of learning and technology. So we help the people with design, we help the people with delivery, we help the people come up with a new way of getting it done—whatever it takes. My particular expertise has always been where new media learning and technology starts to cross.”

With that sort of background, you might expect that Chuck would become interested in VIEs; what you might not expect is that it’s his architecture background that first got him interested: “If my first degree hadn’t been around design and architecture, I probably wouldn’t have been so fascinated about putting spaces together that I could put people in.”

But that interest quickly turned to the application of VIEs for learning: “IBM spends millions of dollars on learning globally, so it is something that is important to us, and Learning has became very important to me.  I always find myself saying, ‘How can I take XYZ technology and make it work for people in a learning context?’”

Chuck was becoming increasingly aware of 3D worlds like World of Warcraft. “We started to say, ‘It’s quite interesting that there’s this parallel universe that’s being built almost next door to IBM, replete with economies and so on. Then we started talking to some of the people who were thinking about these economies and realized that some of these economies were bigger than whole countries—but were happening virtually. That’s what really tipped it for me.”

IBM’s participation in VIEs began with a Jam, a collaborative innovation process designed to bring together diverse mind to create innovations. “One of the focus areas was around virtual collaboration in a global setting. And the reason why that’s important to IBM is that there are 400,000 IBMers worldwide, another 100,000 contractors, and about 70% of those people live outside the Americas. 42% of people don’t have a traditional office. So we were a virtual company by nature, and increasingly having to come together on a virtual global basis.”

So Chuck decided to take the Jam team into the 3D world. “And all of a sudden, all kinds of people showed up and wanted to participate. We had these young, brand-new IBMers flying around next to executives, talking about how a World could be used. People were seeing that this had some real possibilities.”

The idea of using Virtual Worlds for collaboration proved to be the most popular idea to come out of the Jam that year, and the team earned substantial funding to build the idea out further.

[In the next post, we’ll look at how the concept of Affordances affect how we interact with 3D worlds.]

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Virtual Worlds, Series, Performance Improvement, Organizational Learning

The Science Behind Learning: Cognitive Tips and How Tos for Corporate Training (Part 2)

Posted by Reni Gorman on Mar 21, 2010 8:38:00 AM

by Reni Gorman

Tip #2: Use the conceptual framework (you created in tip #1) to organize course material into hierarchical groups, subgroups and chunks of 7 (plus or minus 2).

Cognitive Psychology: Prepare information for encoding into the propositional network by attempting to organize and chunk material into meaningful patterns of information based on a conceptual framework and limited to groups or units of 7 (plus or minus 2) to account for the standard capacity of verbal working memory.

Why (Justification):

“The fact that ‘expert’ knowledge is organized around important ideas or concepts suggests that curricula should also be organized in ways that lead to conceptual understanding.” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 42)

Even though experts have vast knowledge basis in their domain, their knowledge is organized around a set of core concepts that guide them. These core concepts “emerge” as a higher level pattern among all the data for their domain referred to as meaningful patterns of information that arose over years of practice. (Bransford et al., 2000) “A key finding in the learning and transfer literature is that organizing information into a conceptual framework allows for greater “transfer”; that is, it allows the student to apply what was learned in new situations and to learn related information more quickly.” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 18)

In a study by DeGroot (1965) expert chess players were compared to novice players by asking them to verbalize their thinking as they played. The experts were more likely to recognize meaningful chess configurations and strategies that allowed them to consider sets of moves that were superior to novices. “Chess masters are able to chunk together several chess pieces in a configuration that is governed by some strategic component of the game. Lacking a hierarchical, highly organized structure for the domain, novices cannot use this chunking strategy.” (p. 33)

“The superior recall ability of experts… has been explained in terms of how they ‘chunk’ various elements of a configuration that are related by an underlying function or strategy. (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 32) According to Anderson (2000) our minds seem to break information down into the smallest unit of knowledge that can stand as a separate assertion for storage, into a proposition.

Understandably, studies have shown that propositional retention is also better in and of itself when meaning is applied. In an experiment, Anderson (2000) himself participated in; subjects were asked to remember pairs of meaningless acronyms such as DAX-GIB. Meaningless memorization resulted in Anderson scoring the worst in his class. Anderson now suggests tying meaning to the acronyms would have improved his ability to recall them.

“Propositions information can be represented in networks that display the relations among concepts.” (Anderson, 2000, p. 151) Propositional networks are also referred to as a semantic network: of or related to meaning.

If you ask people to listen to a list of 20 unrelated words and then ask them to immediately recall them in any order. Then, graph the results with position of the word in the original list on the X (horizontal) axis and the proportion of people who recall that word on the Y (vertical) axis, and you will get a U-shaped curve. This is called a Serial Position Curve and it reveals that the words in the beginning and end of the list are what most people remember, with, generally more words remember at the end. Usually people will remember 7 plus or minus 2. This is considered a standard measurement of the capacity of verbal working memory. (Anderson, 2000) The interesting twist as it relates to the organization of information is that if you give subject-related words, the U-shaped curve still returns, but people will remember more words because they will remember groups of related words.

How (Application):

    • Flesh out the details of your high level outline that you based on the conceptual framework. The first level categorization should remain equal to your conceptual framework and expand the hierarchy from there into a detailed outline with logical related groupings and sub-groupings as needed by taking each concept and creating subgroups of chunks that explain that concepts (sub-concepts). (Main topics and sub-topics.) Make sure you have enough information for each core concept to explain its meaning.
    • In addition to the main points you wrote for your core concepts, write main points for each sub-concept (sub-topic) as well.
    • Take a look at your hierarchical outline when you are done to see if it is chunked optimally. Try to keep each group limited to about 7 (plus or minus 2) if possible.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Anderson, J. R. (2000). Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications: Fifth Edition. New York, N.Y.: Worth Publishers.

Topics: Series, Performance Improvement, Learning Theory, Cognition