Tip #384: What is Magic About the Number Three in Brain Research- and What It Means for Training Design and Delivery

” There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge . . . observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.” Denis Diderot

Evidence-based research findings regarding how the brain works have serious implications for training design and delivery. Paying attention to these findings, which just happen to occur in sets of three, will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning that occurs.

a. Three Types of Memory

Research shows that there are actually three types of memory:

1. Working memory is where thinking gets done. It is dual coded with a buffer for storage of verbal/text elements and a second buffer for visual/spatial elements. Working memory is short-term and limited in terms of the amount of information that can be simultaneously stored.

2. Sensory memory  occurs when we experience any aspect of the world through our senses. A sensory experience is involuntarily stored as episodic knowledge in long-term memory. We need to pay attention to sensory memory episodes for them to get introduced into working memory.

3. Long-term memory in humans is estimated to store the equivalent of 50,000 times the text in the U.S. Library of Congress. Learning is accomplished when information is stored in long-term memory and learners use that information to solve problems.

There are also three types of long-term memory:

(1) Episodic memory stores images of past events. It recalls both events and information related to those events.

(2) Semantic memory stores mental models of meaningful facts and generalized information. It contains verbal information, concepts, rules, principles, and problem-solving skills.

(3) Procedural memory stores the series of steps necessary to perform different tasks. Remembering one step stimulates the response of remembering the next step.

b. Cognitive Load

Working memory has a limited capacity for the amount of information it can hold or process at one time.Cognitive load refers to the amount of work imposed on working memory.

There are three different types of cognitive load, and only two of them are helpful to the learning process:

1. Intrinsic load is the mental work imposed by the complexity of the content to be learned and is primarily determined by the training goals.

2. Extraneous load imposes mental work that is irrelevant to the training goal, such as unnecessary information, learning activities, and visuals.

3. Germane load is relevant mental work imposed by learning activities that help to achieve the training goal.

The three types of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous and germane, are additive. The more there is of one, the less room there is for the others.

c. Expand Working Memory Capacity

There are three ways to expand the virtual capacity of working memory:

1.Increase expertise so the schemas, or mental models, in long-term memory grow and enable working memory to process larger content segments.

2. Automate knowledge or skills so they are coded into long-term memory and can be exercised with minimal or no resources from working memory.

3. Divide content between the auditory and visual components of working memory so that neither processor is overtaxed.

d. Information Processing

Cognitive scientists have discovered three important features of the human information processing system that are particularly relevant for PowerPoint users:

1. Dual-channels: People have separate information processing channels for visual material and verbal material. As a result, PowerPoint design should use both words and pictures to present material.

2. Limited capacity: People can pay attention to only a few pieces of information in each channel at a time. As a result, PowerPoint should be designed without extraneous gimmicks that can increase the possibility of cognitive overload.

3. Active processing: People understand new information when they know what to focus on and are able to organize the information and integrate it with their prior knowledge. As a result, PowerPoint design should use simple graphics to highlight key points, include some type of outline, and provide real life examples that are familiar to the learners.

Designers of training curriculum will increase the probability of successful learning if they follow the precepts of this evidence-based information from brain research.

May your learning be sweet.


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