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Encouraging effective retrieval from long-term memory

The final and most important step in learning—and the key measure of success of teaching or training—is the retrieval of what has been learned from long-term memory when it's needed. Whatever medium is used, training too often produces learners who can't retrieve the knowledge they've been taught—the knowledge they need—when they need it. This is called transfer failure. What causes transfer failure, and which instructional methods and architectures can minimize it? The way people learn things governs the way they remember them. Imagine reciting the months of the year. Easy, right? Now imagine reciting them in alphabetical order. That's a much more difficult task, because we ordinarily learn the months in chronological, not alphabetical, order: so that's how they're stored in our long-term memory.

According to a researcher named E. Tulving, information can be recalled only if ways of remembering the information—called retrieval cues—are provided along with the information at the time of learning. Because you learned the months of the year chronologically, you lack the appropriate retrieval cues to recall them alphabetically. When creating instructional materials, then, you have to design in the retrieval cues that will facilitate recall, or retrieval, of the content of what you want to teach. It's also extremely important to build retrieval cues into rehearsal exercises. In training courses, the secret to helping the learner remember later on is to build retrieval cues from the job environment into the training. For some skills, such as frequently used procedures, it's important to create rehearsal contexts and interactions that are as close as possible to what learners will actually see on the job—as in the airline training discussed above.

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