If material you plan to present is difficult, you might want to mix in stuff that’s a little easier and present it at the end of a training session.

Here’s why: Researchers say there’s real science behind the old saying, “All’s well that ends well.”

The research
Scientists gave students two lists to learn:

  • List 1 contained 20 extremely difficult Spanish-to-English translations.
  • List 2 contained 20 extremely difficult translations followed by 15 moderately difficult ones.

The students were tested after both List 1 and List 2. After a short break, they were given the option to return the next day and learn a new list.

They were asked to choose whether they would like a list more like List 1 or List 2.

The harder test seemed easier
Objectively, List 2 required more effort – it added 15 more items to the learning task.

Yet 70% of the students said the second list was easier to master and presented a less uncomfortable learning experience.

And 73% said they would prefer to study and be tested on a longer list such as List 2.

So why did the harder test seem easier?

Researchers concluded the 15 easier questions at the end of List 2 created a more pleasant emotional experience for the learner, and that’s what they remembered.

All’s well that ends well.

These results fit in with other research about physical discomfort. In such studies, researchers have shown that it’s not the duration of discomfort or arduous effort that people remember, but the peak level and final level of discomfort.

Note: There’s a nuance in applying these results. If you’re looking for short-term results, the perceived difficulty doesn’t matter much. In fact, students actually scored better on List 1.

But if you want trainees to return to the material, ending on a positive note will motivate them to do so.

What you can do
Here are some suggestions for applying this research:

1. Don’t rush through the end of a lesson. That’s a big temptation, but it will feel uncomfortable and disorganized to trainees, and that’s what they will remember.

It’s better to break off your lesson plan and try to find a high note to end the session.

2. Gauge the discomfort the material will likely cause. They call it a comfort zone for a reason. If you know you are pushing learners out of their comfort zones, plan an ending that’s more inside their comfort zone – such as reviewing material or presenting a part of the lesson that’s most familiar to them.

For example, a sales role play using a new closing technique might tax workers’ emotions. But perhaps you can focus on one small victory – finding the time to ask a new question – and end on that.

Source: Finn, B. (2010). Ending on a high note: Adding a better end to effortful study. J. Exp. Psychol Learn Memory Cognition, 36(6), 1548-1553.

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