Reduce the load and improve the learning

Technological delivery may make training efficient. It does not necessarily make for effective learning. It is the relationships among people and sharing contextualized experiences that create emergent knowledge that is the basis of education.

Mark Federman also says that “education is not merely about transferring information”, which is the part of the question that Will Richardson is wrestling with in the context of teacher professional development [lots more on Will’s post and worth reading all the comments]:

But the workshops are a different story. In the best case, they are a full day of one or two particular tools. In the worst case, they are one or two hours on a lot of tools. Either way, the experience usually serves to overwhelm, and at the end of the day (or hour) the participants head back to the craziness of their teaching lives where I’m guessing much of what they have “learned”ย fails to take root.

Much (most? all?) of our training and education is still based on transferring information, whether it be “death by powerpoint” or a hands-on workshop. I’m just as guilty as others in trying to get everything covered in the allotted time. So how do we change?



I have a few engagements coming up in 2008 and I am going to start practicing a new approach to my workshops and presentations. One of my inspirations comes from this article in The Star, about Carl Wieman and the Science Education Initiative at UBC, reinforcing what I already know, but still don’t practice well enough:

“Studies show we can remember only seven items at a time and can process only four ideas at once, so having an expensive professor read from a textbook is not an intelligent way to transfer information. It’s like overloading a computer that doesn’t have enough memory,” Wieman says.

Old-style introductory science lectures were “rotten for most people;” he says.

“The average student never mastered more than 30 per cent of the key essential concepts.

“But if you reduce the load of information and have students work the brain vigorously ย – very much like developing a muscle – research shows you can increase retention to about 65 per cent.”

Often, with paying participants or attendees at conferences, we may not feel comfortable in challenging them and getting them involved in a learning process. The easy way is to present information [hopefully in an entertaining way so that we get invited back] or give follow-me activities and then let them ask questions at the end. People can tune out, yak on the back channel or check their e-mail.

Even when you provide additional resources and avenues of conversation after the workshop, few people follow up because they’re too busy with the craziness of their lives. The learning moment, which may only be one, has to happen there on the spot. Instead of a shot-gun lecture approach, covering lots of ideas and information, focusing on only a few key ideas and reinforcing them through engagement is the cognitively superior approach. However, forcing participation may turn off people used to the lecture approach and may even result in fewer smilies on the feedback sheets. It could be an interesting year.

10 Responses to “Reduce the load and improve the learning”

  1. Stephan List

    Hello Harold,

    what a wonderful icon! ๐Ÿ™‚ Is it also under creative commons license? I’d like to post it in the seminar rooms.


  2. Harold

    Everything is CC licensed, but you can use this without attribution. I can make a higher resolution picture if you need it.

  3. Christine Martell

    I made a shift in my conference presentations this year. I used to teach people how to use visuals in their training. They ‘did’ it, but I also taught them how to do it. Did the how stick? Not so much.

    This year, I shifted to using photos to explore a topic of common interest. So, for example, at the Brandon Hall conference, we explored: What is Innovation in Learning? Everyone has to participate.

    After that conference, I got a call from an attendee saying he thought he was coming to a program about how to make his Powerpoint better, but he was sitting in the front and couldn’t escape…..and thanking me because it was his favorite session at the conference (while placing an order for the VisualsSpeak tools).

    My smile sheets have not suffered at all, and I get more emails and comments about favorite and best sessions than ever.

    I would encourage you to go for it. And how about making posters to hang in our training rooms of that great graphic!

  4. Michele Martin

    Great post, Harold! I’ve long been an advocate of “less is more” (although I don’t always practice what I preach) and of trying to get people to interact with the materials in ways that push them past their boundaries. At one day-long session I did not bring any handouts. Instead, I had the group create their own and share with each other. What was interesting was the degree of resistance and complaint I got because I didn’t just give them handouts. They didn’t WANT to work at learning as much as be entertained (hopefully) at my session. What was also interesting was that the complaints showed up on my “smile sheets,” where I received lower ratings than I usually do with this group, even though several said that they’d actually learned MORE at this session! Crazy!

    Anyway–I applaud and appreciate your plan for 2008 and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes you.

  5. Harold

    I guess I’ll have Christine and Michele watching over me to make sure that I put my money where my mouth is in 2008 ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Harold

    It’s a great short video and still current, even though it was produced in the ’70’s. I use it for some of my presentations.


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