Tips on Avoiding “In-One-Ear-and-Out-the-Other” Syndrome
by Adele Sommers
Are you a teacher, trainer, presenter, or instructional designer? If so, you’ve probably realized that a major dilemma we face as explainers is curbing our desire to tell our listeners everything we know. Ever noticed how much we love talking about our favorite subject? If given a chance, we could go on forever!
For example, if you teach people how to manage their finances, one of the topics you surely love to discuss in detail is how investment interest accrues over time, and how to compare different types of loans.
But when you get into unfamiliar territory, such as how the formula for simple interest differs from the formula for compound interest, your learners will struggle to decode all of the new concepts. And once they see those equations written out on the board, their eyes will glaze over as they strain to make sense of it all!
Bottom line: After only one exposure to that new information, especially if it’s complex and detailed, learners will be quite challenged to retain and recall even a small fraction of what they’ve seen and heard.
What that in mind, this article explains why this phenomenon occurs, as well as four specific steps you can take to prevent what I call “in-one-ear-and-out-the-other” syndrome.
It’s easy to become overloaded when learning something new…
Why is absorbing new information so difficult? Why can’t we just hear or see something one time and simply “get it,” without any further exposure or study?
The problem is that we human beings have a very limited capacity in what is known as “working memory” (also referred to as “short-term memory”).
What is working memory? Working memory handles our constant stream of incoming information. You can think of it as a cramped processing center where gobs of sensory input are constantly arriving. But then they must wait to be decoded, packaged, moved, and stored in a retrievable way.
All of that new input is supposed to go into long-term memory, which is our brain’s more permanent storage area. Yet, only a tiny fraction of the input ever makes it into long-term memory on the first try.
Why is that? Much like trying unsuccessfully to drink from a fire hose, our small, underpowered working memories simply discard anything that they can’t quickly sort out. This means that a lot of what you say to your students — especially the complicated details — will simply go in one ear and out the other!
Here’s one reason why your students can be so easily overwhelmed...
We can process only about 3 to 4 chunks of information at a time!
For many years, researchers generally believed people could memorize somewhere between 5 to 9 pieces (or “chunks”) of new information at a time.
A common example is hearing a phone number for the first time and then trying to dial it. We typically rehearse it in our minds just long enough to call it — and then it quickly fades away.
To determine what our working memories are really capable of, in 2001, Dr. Nelson Cowan analyzed decades of previous research. His closer look at the data revealed that the limitations of working memory seem to be much greater than originally thought.
He concluded that we’re more likely capable of absorbing only about 3 to 4 chunks of new information at one time with any success.
What does our limited working memory mean in daily life?
How many ideas can you work with at one time?
To informally gauge how many chunks of information you can juggle simultaneously, all you would have to do is visit your local supermarket without a shopping list when you have several things to buy.
Someone with an exceptionally good short-term memory (or a clever mnemonic aid) might be able to remember a long list of items to buy without ever having to write them down.
Most of us, however, depend on a written list when our needs exceed a certain threshold. For example, I’ve found that my own memory-juggling capacity accommodates only about three or four things before I really must make a list!
The same is true whenever I’m learning the basics of a complex subject for the first time — especially when my job is to translate it into training. I “rehearse” small amounts of that new information in my brain and in my notes until the pieces come together. Then I’m able to organize and store it in my long-term memory. It could take days, weeks, or months to finally make sense!
So, how can YOU prevent “in-one-ear-and-out-the-other” syndrome?
To help your learners master everything they’ll need to know without losing most of it along the way...
1) Recognize your learners’ limitations. They can absorb only about 3 to 4 main ideas in one sitting, so please try not to overload them. But if you give them some supporting handouts, or point them to a set of quick reference guides, they’ll have something to refer back to when they need to fill in the blanks.
2) Present the information one layer at a time. Lay a thorough foundation by “chunking” your training presentations, rather than “dumping” the information out in a haphazard way. What does that mean?
It’s the difference between building a strong foundation, one layer of bricks at a time (that’s chunking), and dumping a ton of bricks on the ground — and then expecting your students to sort through them all and stack them on their own. That’s way too much work for your learners, and far too intimidating!
3) Provide the input in more than one form. If your students can see it, hear it, and touch it (such as by working with interactive exercises), that combination will engage multiple senses and generate a much stronger impression. You can achieve that result by blending online tutorials with class discussions and plenty of practice opportunities, for example.
4) Repeat the same information over and over again. The more often people see, hear, and interact with the same concepts, the stronger and longer their recall will be. Here’s a key reason why...
Hermann Ebbinghaus, an eminent 19th-century experimental psychologist, researched how long people can retain new information. For example, he studied what happens when learners are able to review that new information multiple times at later dates, compared to not reviewing the information at all. His findings resulted in what has become known as the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.
Ebbinghaus’ data revealed that within only one month, we tend to forget about 80–90% of what we’ve learned if we don’t review it and put it into practice right away. The longer we wait to apply it, the less we’ll be able to remember.
Conversely, the more often we revisit and use that information, the longer and more accurately we’ll be able to recall what we’ve learned.
In conclusion, it’s not unusual to overestimate your learners’ ability to absorb new information the first time they hear it. Just remember that their capacity to decode, retain, and recall complex or detailed facts, terms, concepts, and so forth is really quite limited. To avoid “in-one-ear-and-out-the-other” syndrome, use the four tips above to help them readily remember and apply what you’ve worked so hard to teach them!
Copyright 2021 Adele Sommers