Book Release: Secret SharePoint

We interrupt our normal schedule of book reviews to announce that we’ve released our latest book – Secret SharePoint. We’ve been leaking some content from the project for months on our blog, through a free subscription to an email series, and through partners like SPTechCon. This has been in preparation for our launch of the Secret SharePoint book – and that launch is today!

The book is over 200 pages of special tips that I’ve learned over the last 18 years of working with SharePoint. It’s solutions to hard problems, and they work whether you’re using SharePoint on-premises or SharePoint Online.

From birthday calendars and navigation to search and Word Quick Parts, Secret SharePoint has the solutions you need for the problems you’re facing.

More than that, we’re still offering the free email course that you can sign up for to get part of the content from the book and a newly-released, self-paced online course. Both of these offer not only the written text but videos and screen casts that walk you through the entire process of building the solutions that we’ve created for other customers.

As a special thank you for following us, you can get the book directly from us for $15 + Shipping. That’s half the retail price. Order yours today.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Book Review-How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Our ability to learn ranks right up there with our ability to coordinate our activities as the chief weapon that we’ve used to become the dominant species on the planet. As anthropologists John Tooby and Irven DeVore have commented, we carve out the “cognitive niche”. Despite our cognitive capacity being so essential to our survival that it literally drives us to be born before we’re fully prepared to take on the world, relatively little is understood in science about how we learn — and substantially less of what we have learned has become common knowledge. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens is designed to change the public’s awareness of what little we do know about learning. (If you want more on our ability to coordinate and its importance, you can see The Righteous Mind or Mindreading.)

Literacy

While learning is essential to our current world, much of what we think about as learning is new from an evolutionary sense. Even reading, writing, and arithmetic are relatively new creations. Consider that before the invention of the printing press, literacy meant the ability to write your own name — and there weren’t that many people that were literate. Today, we view literacy differently: it’s the ability to read and write in our native language.

We expect — rightly or wrongly — that our children should be able to have basic fluency in their native language by the time they’re ten. We expect even more from them as they progress through schools. Where calculus was the domain of specialized mathematics only a few decades ago, it’s an assumption for most professions today. You’re expected to understand the basics of a branch of mathematics that was until recently a speciality — and much, much more.

Evolution

In evolutionary terms, the human being we know is a newcomer. Written history extends back a few thousand years, and fossil evidence goes back ten thousand years or so. That’s a blink in evolutionary time. We evolved from hunter-gatherers to the masters of agriculture, and with that we developed a caloric surplus, which allowed us to start to pursue more abstract thoughts than worrying about the next meal and avoiding becoming one.

During this rapid conversion from a nomadic existence following berries and buffalo to one with deep roots in agriculture and our subsequent adaption into a sedentary and highly intellectual experience, we’ve moved faster than our genes can keep up. We’ve moved into a world where our shared knowledge is so much more than we as humans have ever encountered.

Some have estimated that we experience in a single year more information and data than our grandparents experienced in their lifetimes. That’s an increase in information of 50-100 to 1 in just the last 100 years, and it’s getting faster.

Information Management

When I speak to audiences about information management, I share how the advances in our ability to share knowledge is growing at a breathtaking pace. Until Gutenberg’s printing press in 1450, if you wanted something copied, you gave it to a scribe or a monk. Gutenberg made it possible to take important texts and make copies efficiently, thereby reducing the barriers to having books. In 1870, we got typewriters. This allowed us to standardize the appearance of text and to provide a standard structure. In 1959, Xerox created the xerographic process for photocopying content. Suddenly, the bar for replication was dramatically lowered. In the 1970s, computers made the processing and replication of data easier. In the 1980s, computers became personal, and suddenly everyone was able to store and share their information. In the 1990s, computers were networked, so sharing between people became automatic. By the 2000s, we shared images as well. In the 2010s, we started delivering video.

The upshot of this is that it took us thousands of years to get to writing and then a few thousand to get to the ability to replicate content. Now we’re looking at innovations in our ability to share information about every decade. How can you possibly keep up with all the knowledge being created? The answer is that you can’t — however, to even keep up with a portion of what we need to know, we need to be efficient and effective with our learning. Unfortunately, our learning innovations haven’t kept up.

Brain Science

There are two distinct branches of science that study how the brain works. One branch is psychology, which is largely concerned with the proper functioning of our minds as it relates to the behavioral outcomes. The other branch is neurology, which is focused on understanding how our brains perform the wonders that they do.

I’ve shared in my reviews of The Cult of Personality Testing, Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Health, The Heart and Soul of Change : Delivering What Works in Therapy, and other books how little we actually know about psychology. In truth, the correlations of outcomes for the counseled and uncounseled states are horrifyingly similar. There’s great arguments in this field about what is and isn’t effective. Psychoactive drugs are prolifically prescribed, and yet seem to have very little effect.

On the neurology front, we’ve got some knowledge about the regions that are active for various thinking and behaviors, but there’s more that we don’t know than we do know. We’re looking into an opaque gray matter hoping to tease out how the magic works — and we’ve been largely unsuccessful. (See Incognito, The Rise of Superman, The End of Memory and Emotional Intelligence for some on neurology.)

Along the way, we’ve found some answers from brave and insightful (and sometimes lucky) scientists who stared at a result and scratched their heads until they could come up with plausible hypothesis about what is going on inside our heads. These answers have not been adopted by those who lead the charge for better education for everyone – they’re marching the same old beat to the same old drum. (See Helping Children Succeed and Schools without Failure for alternative views.)

Myths and Legends

Old myths about how we learn that were garnered from limited experience and observation sometimes run directly counter to the research generated by prestigious universities. Good science is saying some of the things that we’re doing aren’t the right things. We’re not optimizing the learning experience. What we thought we knew about how to teach and learn is being turned on its head — and some is being validated as fundamentally correct.

Some of the myths like having to “keep your nose to the grindstone” are being dispelled by compelling evidence that taking a break can increase retention and free up the cognitive resources necessary to generate the innovations to drive the next generation of business leaders forward.

Forgetting is Your Friend

The nemesis of learning has been the forgetting curve. Ebbinghaus precisely documented the decay of memory using nonsense — in an exacting way. The forgetting curve has long been the enemy of professional trainers and teachers. It’s seen as failure of learning. However, it might be the result of an active process where our brain is trying to cope with the onslaught of information that it wasn’t ever designed to handle. It could be that our mental systems that were designed to consolidate memories trimmed them from our consciousness, so we could focus on things that are more urgent and more relevant.

Losing memories – forgetting – is a painful experience for all of us. It’s frustrating to forget a name or a word when we feel like we need it most. However, this process isn’t one measure but is instead two. Moments after we “need” the information, we may find that we suddenly rediscover what we lost in an annoying but normal aspect of how our memories work.

Memory as Two Separate Measures

One way to consider memory is that it can be measured by two separate attributes. The first measure is the measure of storage. Did we encode the memory and keep it in our brains? Even if we did manage to keep it in our brains, that says relatively little about our ability to recall the information at will. There are things that I know, that when prompted I can recall but for which there are few paths in my brain to be able to recall.

This model for memory is the brainchild of Robert Bjork of UCLA and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork. Their hypothesis is that we evolved with systems that allow us to forget as a natural part of the process. If we had too much in the front of our mind — that is, with high retrieval — we’d never be able to get anything done. The thoughts would constantly be competing with one another. The retrieval paths for some of our memories are trimmed so that they can only be recalled with very specific stimulus.

Desirable Difficulty

Some research points to a desirable difficulty in learning that causes the brain to more intensely link a memory, and this seems to happen with things that were learned once, then “forgotten” or dramatically unlinked for retrieval and relinked. They are so hard to find that our brain seems to not want to make the same mistake of unlinking again. As a result, ideas that are difficult to learn — or relearn — are given special priority for relinking.

In a strange way, forgetting isn’t the enemy of learning; it may be the tool that our brains use to ensure that we’re able to retrieve the right memories at the right times, even if it doesn’t always guess correctly.

Memory is Context Dependent

Have you ever heard that if you study drunk, you should take the test drunk? As crazy as this sounds, it may be correct. Studies with marijuana proved that when someone studied something while under the influence, their performance was better on a test if they were also under the influence. It seems like, somehow, the state of the person got encoded along with the information and the retrieval was linked to that state.

It’s a well-established fact that behavior is a function of both the person and the environment (see Leading Successful Change for more on Lewin’s function). It’s further a researched fact that people’s opinions are related to where they’re asked questions. If you put them in an environment that feels like home, they’ll give more accurate answers about their home life than if they’re placed in an office or at a college. (See Loneliness for more.) It seems that the web of neural connections is shaped by where we are.

The Importance of Sleep

Historically, sleep was viewed as wasted time. However, from an evolutionary standpoint, we find that most animals sleep at times and lengths that serve them. Koalas survive on a very low-calorie diet of eucalyptus leaves and sleep 20 hours a day. The brown bat similarly sleeps all day but during dusk and dawn, when their adaptation of echolocation is most powerful at allowing them to feed on mosquitos, and they are least likely to be struck down by predatory birds. So, too, there must be an evolutionary reason for our sleep cycle. Some of the evidence seems to be repair of our bodies; but more interestingly, it’s essential for the development of long-term memories and learning.

There has been a great deal of research on sleep now, but it wasn’t always that way. In December 1951, Armond, the son of a young graduate student, Eugene Aserinsky, was hooked up to the predecessor of the EEG, and REM sleep was observed for the first time. Aserinsky thought it was a fluke, but test after test confirmed high levels of brain activity during specific periods of sleep – and more than was expected all the time.

Since then, research has progressed. We now know there are various stages of sleep, and these different phases of sleep seem to be performing different kinds of maintenance. Stage 2 is all about motor memory, stages 3 and 4 are for building retention, and REM helps us build pattern recognition. (If you want more on the research into sleep, see The Rise of Superman.)

Trying It Out – Testing as Studying

One of the challenging things about assessing the efficacy of training (see Efficiency in Learning) is that each assessment changes the learning. Assessing retention after a day increases the probability that someone will remember more when tested two weeks later. The finding is relatively easy to explain. They see a greater relevance in the information, because they’ve been tested on it. (See The Adult Learner for more on the importance of relevance.) What’s harder to explain is how, after two weeks, the average performance will climb when compared to the test just one day later. Even without additional studying, performing an assessment will cause the student to retain more than they remember at the first assessment.

There’s not clear consensus on exactly how or why this happens – but it does happen. We don’t know whether the assessment creates desirable difficulty in the learning process, it increases awareness and therefore elevates memories of related topics that can be used to navigate back to the original idea, or whether sleep continues to reintegrate old memories. Whatever the cause, we learn, in part, based on the way that we’re tested. The more that we’re tested on simple recall, the more that we’ll remember things that require simple recall. The more we provide complexity in our testing, the more likely we are to encourage complex storage of facts.

The real test is the test of life. What will you retain from How We Learn – and why?

cash register

Cost Effective Training

There’s a lot of disruption in the training industry – there’s always a lot of disruption in the training industry. However, this disruption sits along the edges and rarely penetrates to the core. The core of what training does – or, rather, is supposed to do – is improve human performance. It’s a tool, like coaching and productivity aids, that is designed to make humans more productive, happier, and healthier.

We’ve got decades of solid research on how people learn – and how they don’t. (See Efficiency in Learning, The Adult Learner, and The ABCs of How We Learn for a start.) We’ve got good strategies for reducing the gap between what we want people to know and what they actually do. (See Job Aids and Performance Support for an example.) Unfortunately, few practitioners have done much research on what does work and what doesn’t. Instead, they rely on their experience and how they were taught. The thinking goes like this: “If it worked for me to learn, it will work for other people.” Accepting that this is true for the moment, that’s not the point. The point in today’s information overload, high-speed, rapid-change environment isn’t whether it can accomplish the objective. (See The Information Diet and The Organized Mind for more on information overload.) The question is whether it’s the most effective way to improve the performance of humans.

Efficacy

Efficacy is measured on whether the humans are able to perform the skills or behaviors that the training is designed to enhance. This is balanced against the cost, both in terms of the individual human learner and the effort in producing the training, including its distribution. The largest shift in corporate training over the last two decades (which is a short time in learning terms) has been the shift from instructor-led classroom training to electronic-based training.

This shift is due to the substantial reduction in cost by eliminating room logistics, flights for the parties involved, and the instructor for every delivery. These costs are substantial, and because they are so large, it’s acceptable in many kinds of training to accept lower learning retention rates through electronic learning and still have greater efficacy. So even though we don’t get as far down the road to our goal of total learning, its cost reduction is so significant it has a higher efficacy.

With electronic learning in place, the primary remaining costs are the cost to develop the course and the cost for the consumers to go through it. Unfortunately, the distributed nature of the cost for people to go through the course makes this portion of the educational cost less tangible to managers and leaders who are looking at the costs of a training program. Thus, the primary constraint on costs becomes the cost to develop the course.

Build vs. Buy

This leads to the classic build vs. buy decision. When should an organization build their own content, and when should they buy existing courses developed by others to leverage economies of scale? The rather simplistic answer is that you build when the training needs to be customized to your organization. The problem is that the lines are rarely clear between the need to customize and the ability to accept mass-market training.

Certainly, when training on the processes inside the organization, it’s necessary to develop the content internally. On the opposite extreme, few learning organizations would believe that customizing the introduction to Microsoft Word course makes sense. The rub comes in when we move to the gray areas like customer relationship management (CRM) software or even advanced Microsoft Word. In the CRM example, you may want to teach the skill (adding an opportunity) with the details of the organization’s rules. For instance, you may need to discuss the specific rules for how to rate the likelihood of closing the opportunity based on your organization’s rules. In the Microsoft Word example, you may have a specific location where templates must be stored or a specific set of styles that should be used for larger documents. In these cases, the skills are infused with the particulars of the organization.

Buy and Customize

A strategy for addressing this need is to buy a baseline set of content and customize it. While this strategy sounds good in theory, in practice it can be difficult to do, as content producers are reluctant to share their source materials with corporations to allow them customization. It also requires a set of skills that many learning professionals don’t have. We have SCORM and TinCan, but there’s not one way of doing things that a learning professional can learn to understand how to customize the content. There’s always conventions of the content producer that the corporate trainer must learn ad hoc.

Ultimately, the most effective answer for organizations is to buy content and customize it, but the market isn’t ready to make this a reality for every organization. For the time being, many organizations are going to settle for buying some content and creating other content. Solutions like the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide, which offers simple ways to replace screen shots and edit the items, aren’t common, and they’re likely to not be common for a while.

analog volume meter

Training Myth: Feedback is Always Good (or Bad)

In developing training for people, we make several assumptions. Those assumptions are based on our own experience, the environment, or folklore surrounding training. Assumptions aren’t bad. They allow us to cope with a complex set of variables that impact learning. However, challenging these assumptions can help us to create training that is more effective and sustained.

The myth of feedback is a twisting tale. Early research seemed to indicate that feedback depressed learning, while common sense says that feedback is essential to learning. With the advent of more eLearning courses, careful designers are looking for ways to provide meaningful feedback to students and in the process stumbling on age-old controversies.

Research on Delayed Feedback

Learning researchers started investigating the impact of feedback and discovered something curious. Delaying feedback created better learning and long-term retention. One of the conclusions from this research was that feedback was bad for learning. However, it’s only when you look under the covers to the experimental design that you begin to see that what they were testing isn’t exactly the same thing that we’re looking at in our training courses.

The design of the test was such that the feedback was delayed – but it was delayed less than 10 seconds. Most of the time when we’re considering feedback, we’re not considering such short periods of time. We’re evaluating whether we should show a student their result after they have answered a question (hint: you shouldn’t) or after the test (hint: you should). In the computerized learning world, we’re talking about whether we provide effectively instant feedback or whether we delay that feedback.

We wouldn’t typically think of delaying feedback for only a few seconds – but we should use this as a clue.

Training or Productivity Aid

One reason that instant feedback may indeed depress learning is the perception that it’s going to be permanently available. If you can always ask your mother, or turn to your colleague or a resource, why would you learn it? If the resource is always available and easier than learning the material, then you shouldn’t learn the material. Learners are leveraging this phenomenon more and more frequently as the quip “just Google it” flows freely from our mouths on a wide variety of topics.

It may be that when we make getting the correct answer (even through random guessing) too easy, we reduce the ability of the learner to justify the mental expense of committing it to memory. Consider another change in learning over the last 20 years. Twenty years ago, we would be amazed by people who remembered phone numbers. Today, few people know the numbers of their closest friends, because they don’t have to. They select the name in their contacts on their phone and the number is automatically dialed – without you even having to know it for a moment.

As we’re designing training feedback, we need to be cognizant that we want to create a small barrier to getting the feedback so that learners don’t use the training program as a crutch and use that crutch instead of learning.

Learning or Performance

Before leaving the topic of learners using the training as a crutch for not learning something, it’s important to realize that this is a valid strategy when the training isn’t training instead is a performance aid. That is, the content produced is intentionally designed to be a sidekick to the learner when they’re performing the actual task. (See Job Aids and Performance Support for more.)

The fact that it is a valid strategy relies on the awareness that our goal isn’t learning. Though we’re all in the training business, that isn’t what the organization wants. The organization wants productivity and effectiveness. They expect that they can get productivity and effectiveness through training.

When we can bypass the learning process and make employees productive without it, we should do that even if it doesn’t officially match our titles.

When Feedback is Good

While we’ve explored when feedback can be bad, it’s most frequently good. In fact, the lack of feedback strongly inhibits learning. If you can’t see the results of your actions, then you have no way of improving. The psychological concept of flow requires tight feedback loops. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) Why does flow matter? Well, because it is a mental state which generally produces five times the results of other mental states. Generating flow states also improves mood well after the flow state has ended. Even the residual effects help lubricate organizations to better interaction.

High-performance athletes create scenarios where they receive expert and timely feedback so that they can improve their performance to its peak (see Peak). Deliberate practice drives improvement, and feedback drives deliberate practice. The more we can give meaningful feedback, the more we can create opportunities for learning and deeper learning.

In Sum

Give feedback – every time. Give feedback with enough of a barrier that learners won’t use ease of access as an excuse not to learn – unless that’s your goal.

The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them

Book Review-The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them

I’m always trying to find ways to better teach and train. I, just like you, have seen plenty of bad training courses, where you want to stab pencils in your ears and gouge out your eyes just to stop the pain of listening and seeing the training session. While not every teaching engenders this response, far too many of them do. My goal is that no one will ever feel that way in my teaching. I desire to create an experience that’s aligned with how adults learn and is based on everything we know about learning through research.

Getting back to the fundamentals is important. When I saw The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them it felt like I could get back to the fundamentals and review what I knew about learning.

Levels of Learning

If you’ve read this blog for a while you may have seen my review of Efficiency in Learning, which I felt was a powerful book about the process of learning design. It was primarily focused on the detailed level of what strategies to use to minimize cognitive load. In this way, it was focused on the instruction component of the learning process. I believe that these tools are as essential as learning your multiplication tables. It teaches the fundamentals you need to know no matter what strategies you use.

The ABCs of How We Learn looks at the problem from a much higher level. Instead of the fundamental skills of managing cognitive load, The ABCs of How We Learn is more focused on which tool to pull out of the toolbox when teaching. When the question is whether you use an analogy or a worked example, The ABCs of How We Learn has the answer. When you’re looking for what are the barriers outside the training which may prevent learning, The ABCs of How We Learn has the answers.

This is a still different dimension of looking at learning from Bloom’s Taxonomy. Instead of looking at the kind of thinking that is desired after the training, the view is from the perspective of how to ensure that the training stays with the student long after the training is over. It’s a dirty little secret in the training industry that, without reinforcement, 80% of the training a student receives will be gone within two weeks. Not even in baseball would a 20% success rate be acceptable – but in most training situations it is.

We’re All Adults Here, Right?

Most of my training work is with adults. While I support programs that educate children and teens, this isn’t the primary focus of my work. One of the questions that I ask when looking at materials is whether the target is for teaching adults or teaching children. Adults learn differently (see The Adult Learner). There are programs that work well for teaching children – but their child focus makes them not effective at teaching adults. (See “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street.)

I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the approaches and techniques described apply whether we’re talking about adult or child learners. Certainly, things like reward take on different context when working with adults compared to children. (Though food seems to be a universal motivator: children are more interested in candy, and adults are more interested in donuts.)

Admittedly, most of the research cited was with children; however, this is to be expected, since most of the educational research being done in the world is done for children rather than adults.

Spelling Learning

The order of the approaches was established by the alphabetic reference. They’re delivered in a strictly alphabetical sequence; however, what struck me is that some of the approaches precede teaching, and some of them are necessary after training. For instance, analogy is a tool used during the teaching. Belonging is used prior to training. Contrasting cases is another teaching approach and deliberate practice is a post-instruction item. Elaboration is something that is done as a part of education process. Feedback is what’s done to help the practice work effectively.

To see how the 26 approaches might look separated into categories of pre-, during, and post-learning, I’ve arranged the approaches in the following table. Note that the “pre” items are mostly setting the conditions for learning either in the environment directly or in the student’s perspective on learning. (See Mindset for more about how a perspective can impact outcomes.)

Pre During Post
  • B – Belonging
  • N – Norms
  • O – Observation
  • X – eXcitement
  • Y – Yes I Can
  • A – Analogy
  • C – Contrasting Cases
  • E – Elaboration
  • H – Hands On
  • J – Just-in-Time Telling
  • L – Listening and Sharing
  • Q – Question Driven
  • S – Self-Explanation
  • T – Teaching
  • V – Visualization
  • W – Worked Examples
  • D – Deliberate Practice
  • F – Feedback
  • G – Generation
  • I – Imaginative Play
  • K – Knowledge
  • M – Making
  • P – Participation
  • R – Reward
  • U – Undoing
  • Z – Zzzzz… (Sleep)

Obviously, ordering the items in this way destroys the neat ordering of the alphabet. However, it allows you to think about learning in a way that’s more connected to the way that students learn. The above table could be further refined by ordering the approaches within these three buckets. For instance, contrasting cases are particularly effective when paired with worked examples.

The Alphabet Song

Despite the relatively short length of this review, The ABCs of How We Learn is a great book to help improve your teaching. Each of the approaches is covered in a bite-sized chunk that you can easily read in a few minutes. That means in less than a month you can get through it. If you’re an educator – formally or informally – it’s worth learning The ABCs of How We Learn.