Trainer: Is 90 decibels half again as loud as 60 decibels, or 1,000 times as loud?
Trainee: It’s 1,000 times as loud.
Trainer: Why?
Trainee: Because decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale.

This simple why question is one example of a cognitive psychological technique that researchers say is often overlooked. But it’s among the most effective techniques for making training stick.

Moment of engagement
Cognitive psychology researchers have found that the moment where trainees stop passively receiving training material and explain it back to themselves is crucial to retention. In fact, along with spacing and testing, it’s one of the top three factors.

There are two basic techniques for triggering this engagement:

1. Elaborative interrogation. This means asking questions such as “Why?” “What does this mean?” and “How can you apply it?”
These seemingly simple questions have a profound effect. In one experiment, for example, a control group of biology students was asked to read a chapter on the digestive system twice during class.

An experimental group in a separate class read the chapter only once, but was stopped periodically by the professor and asked why-type questions, such as “Why must saliva mix with food to initiate digestion?”

The class that read the chapter once but was questioned during it averaged a 76; the controls who read chapter twice averaged 69.

Conclusion: Slowing down and thinking about the whys forced engagement that helped make the material stick.

Take home: Don’t be afraid to push trainees a bit while presenting material to get them thinking about whys and hows.

2. Self-monitoring. In another experiment, a control group of math students was told to “think out loud” while reading a chapter – that is, periodically stop and say what the learning was.

An experimental group was told to do the same thing, with one difference: In addition to recapping the lesson, they were asked to answer, “What do I already know?” and “What is new to me?”

The group that thought about “known vs. new” knowledge performed significantly better when applying the learning to different kinds of problems than those covered in the text. Both groups did about the same when the problems were similar to those presented in the text.

Conclusion: The “known vs. new” question required students to put the material together in a different way.

They had to go back and explain each element to themselves in order to sort it into one category or the other.

That engagement effort took the learning to a deeper level, which helped the learners apply it to novel situations.

Applying the principle
To see how you can harness the power of self-explanation into your training efforts, let’s continue the example, which is part of safety training on hearing protection:

Trainer: Logarithmic scale aside, do you believe that? Are you going to tell me that a lawnmower at 90 decibels is 1,000 times as loud as normal conversation at 60 decibels?

The key here is to challenge learners by asking them to relate the knowledge to a real-world experience.

Trainee: No, I don’t think a lawnmower is 1,000 times as loud.

Trainer: So you think something doesn’t add up here?

Trainee: Yes

The trainer is about to introduce a new concept. But she’s doing it in a way that forces the learner to re-examine the “explanation” he just provided.

In other words, the learner will now have to revise his explanation, which will help lock in the new learning.

Trainer: You’re right. Our ears don’t perceive changes in sound intensity on a logarithmic scale. Our ears may be battered by 1,000 times the sound vibrations, but our brains only perceive it about eight times as loud. It’s called the sone scale.

Trainee: You’re saying there’s a difference between what I’m hearing and what’s physically happening to my ears?

Trainer: Exactly. So can you rely on your ears alone to tell you when noise reaches a dangerous level?

This approach is much more likely to embed the learning than if the trainer had simply presented a slide explaining the differences between the sone and decibel scales. As the learner continues to “explain” these ideas to himself, he becomes his own teacher.

Roediger, H.L. III & Pic, M. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 242-248.

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