Use it or lose it: Nine tasks that promote ‘active processing’
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Use it or lose it: Nine tasks that promote ‘active processing’

Everyone knows that learning is largely wasted unless people have an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned to a task.

Learning theorists call it “active processing,” and it’s the idea behind activities such as role plays, simulations and scenarios. But these tasks can be a challenge to design and implement.

Research suggests, however, that active-processing tasks don’t need to be elaborate or difficult. Relatively simple tasks can also be remarkably useful in getting learning to stick.

Of course, if you can relate the task to how the learner will actually use the information, so much the better. But “real-world” applications aren’t necessary to make these techniques effective.

Which means you can be a lot more creative when designing follow-up activities.

The research
A 2011 analysis found that active processing techniques are one of the most effective learning techniques. It also found that just about any task will do, as long as it requires people to use the information they’ve learned.

Students who rated words for “pleasantness,” for instance, remembered more of the words than those who merely studied a list. Even though the task wasn’t directly related to the goal (memorizing the list), it required people to think about the meaning of the words. That deeper engagement helped encode the information in ways that made it easier to retrieve it later.

Nine ways to engage
Here are nine kinds of tasks that can help promote active processing:

1. Applying. How and when will you use what we’ve learned today?

This is the most straightforward approach, and it makes the content relevant. Key to its use as an active processing technique: Don’t tell learners how the lesson applies. Have them tell you.

2. Judging. What do you think? Does this make sense?

Ask learners to evaluate the content you want them to remember. For example, you might follow up training on a new sales technique by asking, “Do you think this will be effective with your customers? Why or why not?”

3. Ranking. What comes first? What comes next?

As the research study showed, an exercise where people have to rate or rank things promotes active processing.

So, for example, if you present managers with five ways to motivate employees, have the managers rank the techniques in order of importance, or choose which ones they plan to try first.

4. Relating. How is this related to other concepts? How is it similar? How it different?

Say, for example, you’re teaching people safety rules. Ask how they’re similar to ones we all learned as kids: Don’t run with scissors. Look both ways before crossing.

Drawing connections between previous learning and new learning has been shown to trigger self-explanation – that is, where learners begin to teach themselves. And self-explanation has been positively correlated with remembering training learning in the long term.

5. Categorizing. What kind is it?

Categorization is often harder than expected, and requires deep thinking. For example, you’re training managers on how to deal with an angry subordinate. Ask, “Are there different kinds of anger? Do you need to respond to them differently?”

6. Contextualizing. How does it fit into the big picture?

You might ask those same managers what it would mean if they could more effectively respond to an employee’s anger: for example, better morale, lower turnover, greater respect and so on.

7. Elaborating. Tell me more. Explain what you mean by that.

When you invite learners to elaborate, you not only trigger active processing; you also can gauge their current level of understanding and see whether you need to address any misconceptions.

8. Brainstorming/Playing. What are some other ways you might be able to use this concept? Can you think of other situations where you could apply this?

Some might deride this approach as a grad-school BS session, but open-ended discussion is a good way to get people to engage with the content.

9. Personalizing. How will what we’ve learned today affect you personally? Tell me about a time in the past when you might have been able to use this knowledge.

Personalization increases buy-in, of course. But it also increases retention by making people think harder. Ask trainees to connect the material to a story or memory they have, or to talk about its impact on them.

Source: Schwartz, B., et al. (2011). Four principles of memory improvement: A guide to improving learning efficiency. International Journal of Creativity & Problem Solving, 21(1), 7-15

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