Acing a technical talk: Reinforcing knowledge

While the contents of this post are outside the scope of the session proper, an understanding of these principles may go a long way in structuring the session. You could go a step further and include these in your structure in creative ways.

The building analogy

We have already looked at the principles by which a participant first selects and assimilates the knowledge that you have provided into their existing ideas. Previously, I compared this to constructing a building.

In the first post, we discussed selection and linking. The strategies of grabbing attention, motivation and confidence (selection) make the participant choose willingly to construct the building on their minds. Recalling other buildings that they have seen and relating the features of this new building to the other buildings prepares them better. It links the idea of the new building to whatever they already know. They are ready to build.

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In the second post, we discussed how without a proper scaffolding or framework (organising), you can’t just place bricks on top of each other and create a strong and useful building. Once you have created the structure and placed your bricks, you are able to create a brand new building that makes complete sense with the existing landscape of their minds (assimilation).

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There’s just a small problem. Building knowledge in our minds is a little different from building structures in the real world. If new knowledge is a building made of a concrete scaffold and strong and beautiful bricks, the mortar is just clay. It erodes quickly; the building cannot stand for long. Which is why, unlike the real world, you have to start adding your cement mixture, after the building’s ready.

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Without reinforcing or strengthening the assimilation of new knowledge to existing, new knowledge is quickly lost. Many of the strategies are known to us since we use them to reinforce memories all the time.

Strengthening this assimilation in memory

Practise

It’s the most popular strategy. Practice makes a person perfect. However, there are two kinds of practice or rehearsal. One of them is when you just repeat a phone number over and over and is called passive rehearsal. It hasn’t found to be as effective as the other one.

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The second type is meaningful rehearsal where often you rehearse after creating meaningful associations. For example, when you try and remember names. Simply repeating a name does nothing. However, by linking some attributes of the person to the name (WordPress developer, beard, bald, no spectacles, wears bright t-shirts) and repeating this information maybe just twice, we are able to remember the name better.

Every time you meet this bearded, bald, bright t-shirt wearing WordPress developer, you’d actually be rehearsing the memory and Joshua‘s name will be remembered better.

Feedback

After learning something and reinforcing with practice, there has to be a way for the learner to check how well they are doing. Are they able to apply what they’ve learnt usefully? Do they have any problems in doing so? Why are they having these problems?

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You gave your talk, your audience went home and practised what you preached and now they could get stuck. How much of the responsibility of feedback are you willing to take? Are you keeping a communication channel or a resource for them that they can use to get feedback and support? Is that possible for your topic?

Summary

A summary is just repeating the structure of content that was used to help organise the new knowledge. It helps to go back to the scaffold, refreshes links and reinforces the assimilation.

Test

This is by far the most technical part and is often left to experts. However, I’ll only give an example. You are going to teach someone to build a widget with an example of recent posts. Once you have done that, what do you think is a better strategy?

Asking participants to build a widget of

  • most recent posts
  • most popular posts (using comments & social media shares)
  • related posts (using tags)
  • latest tweets
  • latest YouTube videos

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If a participant is able to apply their newly learnt knowledge in new situations, it does mean that they have assimilated it well. It will also strengthen the new knowledge better by creating more and better associations.

On-the-job Training

The final stage is when the participant is able to successfully apply new knowledge at work, on a real life project. Once they start doing that, there’s no way anyone is forgetting anything.

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Implications for your session

How much of the actual strategies of practise, feedback, summary, testing and on-the-job training can we include in the actual session? If not, are there ways we can accommodate them into our sessions, partially? If not, are there ways by which we could create the direction or a framework that could help your audience get the reinforcement?

What next?

Next, we start building a plan and structure for your talk utilising these principles.

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