Blog > Tips for learning that sticks

October 10, 2012

Let’s say you’re planning a visit to a place you’ve never been to before. You might spend time researching where to go, what to do, what to see. You might look on-line, read books or travel guides, and talk to others who have been there. Friends might show you photos of their visit which you look at politely, if somewhat absently.

Then after you’ve been to that place, everything changes. You look at photos – your own and others’ – and see more than just the image. It evokes a memory. It evokes a visceral response.

What’s the difference? Clearly, the difference is personal experience.

I believe this is true in learning too.

It’s the difference between learning that sticks, and learning that ticks the boxes. I’m interested in learning that sticks, what I like to call visceral learning – learning that happens not only in your head, but in your body too.

Here’s what I think works.

1. Experience first, then theory/reading/analysis

Find a way to give people a physical experience before they go into their heads and start analysing, and before you provide lots of theory, additional reading and the like. It can be an exercise, an activity, anything that generally relates to the topic. Here’s some of the activities I use before exploring particular topics.

  • Balls Up (a competitive, team-based ball throwing game) – Introduction to different forms of evaluation
  • Pass the Zap! (a multi-layered, choice making, collaborative game) – Planning
  • Basketball and Group juggling – Exploring the difference between dialogue and debate

2. Creating conditions for group-generated knowledge

Often, I work with subject matter experts (SMEs) – people brought in especially because of their skills and knowledge around a particular topic. It’s seductive to let them share all that they know, to be the ‘sage on the stage’, after all, they are the ‘expert’. Problem is, this is a very weak form of learning. Better to find ways for the SMEs to engage with the existing knowledge of the participants, to supplement and amplify it. Here’s some ways of doing this.

  • Use the Thiagi activity 35 for the group to generate responses to a question or topic, then have the SME respond once people have engaged with the information.
  • Use Full Circle for a group to generate responses to a series of questions then have the SME critique the information
  • Tell personal stories around the topic

3. Reincorporation

Reincorporation is very satisfying. It comes from improvisation and is simply bringing something up again, reincorporating it from earlier. Watch any comedy show and you will see lots of reincorporation. Why bother in training though? This is training, not comedy, right? Reincorporation helps makes an event, even a training event, memorable. It helps facts to stick. The trick to reincorporation as a trainer, is to be present to what is currently happening and to look for opportunities to reincorporate something from earlier. And it’s okay to do it more than once, it’s even more satisfying the third time around.

4. Use models wisely

There’s two types of models. Yeah, yeah – I know there’s way more models than just two. I want to concentrate of the type of models and how we react to them.

The first model is drawn on paper (or whiteboard, or flip chart, or screen). The most common of this type of model is the humble map – whether it’s maps on your device or a humble mud map drawn on the back of an envelope (does anyone use envelopes anymore?) it depicts something that is. This approach to models is then used in all sorts of situations to depict what is – relationships, movement of commodities, organisational structure, ecosystems.

The second type of model is one that is made out of things – bits of card and tape, lego, blocks, found objects. This type of model is to try and create something that doesn’t yet exist, to make concrete an idea that is in someone’s mind. Often a step between the idea and the model is a drawing. These models can be of things, and of experiences. This sort of prototyping has been made famous by design thinking, and I had an opportunity to experience it at the Stanford University d-School recently. Visceral, and memorable indeed.

The first type of model helps explain. The second type of model helps us understand


There’s a few of my ideas for visceral learning? What are your tips for sticky learning?

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