Classroom Simulations

I’m intrigued by new research about the ways people learn! What about you?

I feel the need to step carefully here. This blog is frequented by experts in organizational change and learning, and I’m about to share some things that may challenge your expertise. I know, because I have come across some ideas that have challenged mine.

What if there was new data about the way that people learn that would turn much of what we thought that we knew about learning on its ear? In the spirit of learning, would you listen and consider it seriously?

Over the last month or so I have been engaged in research/discussions about the neurobiology of learning.  Along the way, I have uncovered some “hidden truths” about how we learn. Some of them are intuitive, some not, and most shine light on practices that are as common as they are ineffective.

Here’s what I found:

  1. A tailored, one-to-one model of instruction speeds mastery.
    Corporate training budgets demand the efficiencies of a common training agenda rolled out to the largest number of people possible. I get that.  But research shows that students in individualized tutoring environments may exceed the performance of students taught in a classroom by up to two standard deviations. (Bloom 1984).
  2. Retention increases with repetition.
    This one may strike you as more intuitive: The more one practices remembering something, the stronger the connections in the brain. Practice and time-on-task are two of the most important components of learning (Bell & Kozlowski 2002; Brown 2001). But maybe it’s not so intuitive; today, many corporate training solutions are one-time events that fail to offer appropriate repetition.
  3. Retention also increases with control.
    Students who were given the most control over their learning environment felt the least amount of frustration and spent twice as much time on task as students who had little control over their learning environment (Kort, Reilly & Picard 2002).
  4. We learn best over time.
    Like me, you probably discovered in college that “cramming” before the big test does not promote retention. Studies in the cognitive sciences validate this. The “spacing effect” helps in the formation of long-term memory by using timed intervals between the presentation and re-presentation of material being studied (Bjork 1994; Mizuno 1997; Russo & Mammarella 2002). Today there is a lot of data available about the “spacing” of those learning events. I know of very few learning practitioners who are leveraging that important idea.
  5. The best way to encourage retention is with questions.
    Ah, but not just any questions. It has to be the right kind, delivered in the right way. The “no penalty” question has proven effective at increasing time on task for all students. This means that the questions used and answers given during the learning phase do not have a negative effect on the final grade (Garver 1998).  Extensive research shows that learners who use questions to study dramatically outperform those who merely re-read information, or use any other type of study technique (Brothen & Wamback 2000; Krank & Moon 2001; Thalheimer January 2003).
  6. The best types of questions to use are fill-in-the-blank and/or short-answer format.
    This effect is probably due to the fact that having to recall the answer causes the brain to reformulate the memory and reactivate the complete memory trace. These types of questions produce a much greater recall effect when compared to multiple-choice questions (Glover 1989; Renquist 1983). But here’s the clincher: A multiple-choice question simply requires a student to recognize the correct answer and can impede learning… and may even promote unwanted retention of the wrong answers! I’ve shared this with some of my colleagues who were shocked by the finding.
  7. Let the student evaluate their own answers to study questions after being shown the correct answer.
    Self-evaluation gives the student more control over their learning environment, lowers frustration, and eliminates any hint of a penalty (Bruce Lewolt, 2008). Now think back to how many programs have kept the scoring process invisible to you, only revealing the outcome after the conclusion of the training (if at all.) Another missed opportunity.

At Blueline Simulations, we’ve been putting some of these principles to work. They are showing up in our learning interventions in ways both subtle and dramatic. In the process, they’ve challenged some of our client partners’ mental models. And they’ve had some dramatic, positive consequences.

In my next blog, I’ll give you a peek at learning design for maximum impact. But before I do, I want to hear from you!

Which of these “hidden truths” challenge your own mental models and practices? Do you find any of these as intriguing in their implications as I do?

Let me know what you’re thinking. Then, in my next blog I’ll continue this conversation.

The Crashing of the Wave

In May of 2009, Google announced their “next big thing” Google Wave. It was touted as the next generation replacement for email. As it became available outside of Google offices and moved into the public realm, there was much speculation as to just what Wave was and how people would use it. Sadly, on August 4, 2010, Google announced that they are pulling the plug on Wave. It just never gained enough users for them to continue to invest in its development.

Wave never moved out of beta and as I posted earlier was not quite ready for prime time. Some of what it enabled users to do though is address very real and growing needs. What most people came to realize is that Wave was not a replacement for email, but rather a powerful collaboration tool. It provided for easy, real-time collaboration on everything from meeting notes to drafting research papers.

Here at Blueline we found it a useful tool for capturing conference call notes, drafting proposals, and quickly bringing someone new into a project or client conversation. The ability to “play back” revisions to a document or set of notes allowed a new team member to not only see the current version of a document, but follow the progression of the thinking that led to it.

The need for better tools for real-time collaboration that Wave tapped is now showing up in other tools such as the new version of Microsoft Office, and web-team tools such as Passing around a document via email is inefficient and lacks the “personal touch” of real-time collaboration.

From a learning perspective, these new tools for remote collaboration open up new avenues for peer learning and mentoring. More and more the future of learning in the workplace seems to be moving from the classroom to learning within the context of the work itself, whether that be through sophisticated Level 4 eSimulations, or just-in-time peer-to-peer learning.

As designers of learning experiences, we need to not only use these tools, but think strategically about them and how they can be leveraged to achieve the learning and business objectives of organizations. While the Google Wave may have crashed, the larger tide of more collaboration and team learning is still coming in.

Point/Counter Point: Live Role-Play vs. eSimulations

Point: Robert Coates

The latest “craze” with social and mobile learning will not replace classroom training any more than books replaced lectures, television replaced radio, or video tapes and DVDs replaced movie theaters. Each new innovation in technology provides additional ways of communicating, but doesn’t totally supplant the old ones.

My position is that, as good as eSimulations have become, there are still some aspects of live role-play based skill practice that can’t be duplicated or replaced. What eSimulations excel at are providing opportunities to evaluate a situation and weigh options for responding. It’s at the level of “human” communication, rather than decision-making, that they can’t yet replicate.

Albert Mehrabian and others have investigated the non-verbal aspects of human communication and are often quoted as saying that the meaning of a communication is only 7% the words you say, 38% the tonality, and 55% the body language. Actually, Mehrabian concludes that those percentages are the formula we use for resolving the meaning of inconsistent messages (see Silent Messages 2nd Edition pages 75-58). The point that How you say something is just as or more important than What you say is almost axiomatic. Just changing what word is emphasized in a sentence can completely change its meaning.

It is in this critical non-verbal area of communication that I believe live role-play excels. Subtle communications like tone of voice, timing, eye-contact, and body language play a huge role in our interactions with others. These are also behaviors that can be practiced, improved upon and coached. Currently, technology does not allow us to evaluate the learner’s use of these through eSimulation.

Counterpoint: David Milliken

Just 10 months ago I would have agreed with Robert. But today, because of the many advances that have occurred in eSimulations, for many applications they are actually better. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  1. Level 4 eSimulations (using a rules-based gaming engine) are extremely realistic. Now that developers can create hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of video-based nodes, eSimulations can accurately reflect small changes in tone and body language. Throw in the use of voice-recognition and you have an unparalleled user experience!
  2. eSimulations deliver a consistent experience for every user. Notice that I didn’t say the same experience. That wouldn’t be accurate because, in theory, depending on the number of nodes, hundreds could face the same choices and have the same opportunities, but because of the decisions they made, have a completely unique experience. eSimulations eliminate the variability inherent in a live human role player and can be scored in such a way that they eliminate rater (coach) bias as well.
  3. eSimulations can provide for significantly more practice opportunities than classroom based live-role play. For each live role-play you need to engage two people and optimally three, who often then rotate roles. In the same or less time, all three people could accomplish three rounds of practice each, and probably more, through eSimulation.

However, eSimulations still aren’t for everyone. While development costs have dropped dramatically as developers have improved processes and tools, the relative value of this technology is still dictated by the volume of users who can benefit. While some off-the-shelf solutions can serve small numbers of users cost effectively, if you need to develop something custom, typically you need an audience of 100 or more users for it to be cost effective.

We want to know what YOU think! Lend your voice to the conversation.

What can we learn from the world’s best business schools?

What’s the one thing that everyone with an MBA shares? — One or more experiences with team-based simulations. They are perfect for the B-School environment:

  1. They facilitate team-building,
  2. They provide a quick and effective means to assess the strengths and weaknesses of other students,
  3. They are fun and engaging,
  4. They are an outlet for extremely competitive students, and
  5. They teach practical application of a broad range of skills: business strategy and finance, project management, brand management, leadership, market strategy, sales strategy and trust.

Until recently, these simulations ranged from “simply elegant board games” to sophisticated LAN-based computer simulations with unique information presented via “dash board” for each learner to analyze, make and communicate decisions.

Remote team-based activities and simulation

This summer, the Wharton School of Business presented a case about the effectiveness of team-based activities run remotely — either synchronously or asynchronously — at ASTD’s National Conference. Wharton’s experience (with their Executive MBA Program) was that, in addition to significantly reducing travel time and cost, learners retained more and were more productive when they had more time between sessions to digest and apply information. Their typical design approach incorporated a series of individual and group exercises. It included podcasts, webinars, white papers, remote office hours, and a remote group activity followed by a capstone live classroom experience.

While there have been notable exceptions in our past (e.g. broadly successful roll-outs of Simulearn’s Virtual Leader) historically, for most organizations, distance learning has meant delivering PowerPoints via webinar.

However, that’s no longer the case. Blueline recently launched: Enspire’s Business Challenge. Business Challenge is a web-based, single or multiplayer simulation in which participants take the helm of a virtual business and compete for market leadership. The simulation is set up and debriefed remotely via Webinar. At the client’s option, it can also be supplemented with a series of case-based elearning modules called Fluent in Finance. It presents a unique combination of elearning, simulation and virtual classroom in its design.

Today, we live at the intersection of technological innovation and learning. We feel that the ROI on remote team-based activities and simulation is so compelling, that we regularly include elements of it in the work that we are proposing and designing for clients this fall.

An Evolution in Learning: Welcome to the Age of Integration Part 1

Our story begins with a classroom and an overhead transparency projector.

In its nascent years, corporate training was filled with the promise of alignment and change as employees were removed from the shop floor, herded into the conference room, and encouraged to scribble notes while a subject matter expert delivered information that had been deemed strategically important. Learning was largely transactional — a one-way transfer of information with learners situated permanently on the receiving end. (As for PowerPoint gosh, don’t get me started. Let’s just say the technology has only ensured that the transactional model stayed in place long past its expiration date.)

Then came the age of the knowledge worker, and organizational learning took on a different flavor. Awakened from their classroom-induced hypnosis, practitioners recalled how they learned to ride their bikes at the age of 8 (no PowerPoints!) and wondered why the same idea couldn’t be brought to the front lines of work. Many firms (including your friends here at Blueline Simulations) were intrigued by the possibility of the “discovery rich learning environment.” Using learning technologies such as immersive simulation, learning visuals, Socratic dialogue, and narrative, learners drew from their own experience and knowledge to generate awareness, insight and behavior change. This rich age of constructivist learning persists today, and firms such as Blueline Simulations continue to explore whole-brained technologies (such as our popular Learning Blueprints) to create engagement, connection, and meaning. The constructivist age of corporate learning is still young, and we’ve just barely scratched the surface.

Then, with a mouse click heard round the world, web-enabled technologies emerged and learning changed yet again. Why are we spending all of this money to fly everyone here to HQ? Just look how much it is costing us to take our people off of the shop floor!

Sure, the early promise of e-learning was accompanied by a certain amount of disillusionment. (Click: Answer the question. Click: Advance to the next screen. Repeat.) But just as classroom designs evolved from transactional to constructivist, so did elearning.

And as the learning industry generated more and more great ideas for exercising the technology well, some new awarenesses began to spread within the organization: that perhaps it was time to end the artificial separation between doing the work and learning how to do the work; and that learning can and should be delivered at the exact moment of need.

The constructivist era has evolved into the age of integrated learning. This has spawned a broad range of performance support innovations.

In my next post I’ll look at some new ideas for delivering integrated learning — mission-critical training at the point of greatest learning impact: at the moment of need.