Cognitive Bias in Training Part II: During Design & Delivery

Today, I’m going to write about my experience with some common cognitive biases during the training design and delivery phases. This is by not an exhaustive list. What I want to exemplify here is that by being aware of cognitive bias, we can identify their occurrence more quickly, practice strategies to reduce their impact, or even use them to advantage. In a later post, I also introduce some cognitive bias faced during the business & training needs analysis phases.

To start off, quick definitions:
Cognition: the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.
Bias: cause to feel or show inclination or prejudice for or against someone or something.

Cognitive Biases to address during Training Design

1. Von Restorff Effect (named after German psychiatrist, Hedwig von Restorff):
A bias in favour of the unusual. An item that stands out like a sore thumb is more likely to be remembered than other items.
How this bias can be used in training design: Deliver the key take-away message in a format different from the rest of the training. For e.g: as a tip that is differently designed than the rest of the page, or is introduced by a Coach/ Character, as a reward in a game, as a game in the classroom, etc.

2. Zeigarnik Effect (named after Lithuanian psychiatrist, Bluma Zeigarnik ): The tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about a task that was once pursued, but has since then been left incomplete.
How this bias can be used in training design: This bias can be used quite cleverly to keep Learners engaged even after the training is completed. For e.g: Reflective/ value-based/ Think About It exercises that the Learner can download at the end of the course (or, receives at the end of a classroom course) and reflect upon “at the back of the mind”. Another option could be to design a strategy during the training, with a plan to apply in the real work scenario after the training.

3. Processing Difficulty Effect: Information that takes longer to read and is processed with more difficulty is more easily remembered.
How this bias can be used in training design: So many times I hear the business stakeholder request, “Nothing too difficult. We want a simple, overview level training.” Do that, and you just might end up insulting your Learner and driving them to boredom! Basic training with beginner level information do have their place; but the typical Learner feels more engaged when presented with a challenge. Remember the Confidence aspect of the ARCS Model of motivational design? Design your training not just to help the Learner remember and reinforce their current knowledge, but also provide new information that the Learner can process in order to make new learning connections.

4. Suffix Effect: Memory of a recent item is weakened when another item is add at the end of the list.
How this bias can be used in training design: We’ve all worked with SMEs who want to stuff all available information into a single course. Not only does this extend seat-time, but it actually detracts from the course because adding unnecessary information reduces the Learner’s memory of necessary information.

5. Misinformation Effect: Memory becomes less accurate after exposure to misleading information.
How this bias can be used in training design: Don’t forget to design a strong post-training process! I once worked with a team that had a thick catalog of trainings,  but absolutely dismal post-training support and follow-up, e.g: their contact e-mail ID was broken, the functionalities of the home page they explained in each training had long been updated/ deleted, and for several of the post-training functions, the Learner was transferred through four different web pages before they reached their destination. Needless to say, most Learners lost interest in the training after such user unfriendly service.

Cognitive Biases during Training Delivery (Classroom or Virtual)

1. Self-generation Effect: People are better able to recall memories of statements they have generated over similar statements generated by others.
How this bias can be used in training design: This is why it is so important to engage the audience during training. A common way to institute this is to ask each training participant what they expect out of the training, or to identify a personal challenge they hope to address with the help the training. During the actual training session, Learners can then be encouraged to use the training content presented to identify solutions of their own.

2. Spotlight Effect: The tendency to overestimate how much other people notice your appearance or behavior.
How this bias can be used in training design: This is useful to remember, and to explain for Learners who are shy to share their thoughts and opinions with the team, or nervous about public speaking, recording videos, etc.

3. Shared information Bias: Tendency for group members to spend more time and energy discussing information that all members are already familiar with (shared information), and less time and energy discussing information that only some members are aware of (unshared/ unknown information).
How this bias can be used in training design: This is very common during classroom training sessions where a) the participants more or less know each other, and b) they are apprehensive/ dismissive of new information that is proposed to be presented. Be assertive in such situations. As a Trainer, not only do you have a contractual obligation to complete the full training, it is also your responsibility to elicit/ present new information that helps Learners learn new stuff and build upon/ challenge their existing understanding.

4. Group attribution Error: The belief that the characteristics of individual group members are reflective of the group as a whole.
How this bias can be used in training design: Just because some team members/ training participants are new/ inexperienced/ shy/ unsure/ timid/ nervous, doesn’t mean they don’t have good ideas and interesting viewpoints. Take special care to design an inclusive training and create an encouraging environment where all participants feel free to speak up. Don’t be guided by the aggressive, the bully, and the experienced!

The first part of this series, addressing cognitive bias during training needs analysis, is posted here.

2 responses to “Cognitive Bias in Training Part II: During Design & Delivery”

  1. Welcome, Dear Reader! – Workplace Karma Avatar

    […] 34.  Cognitive Bias in Training Part I: During Design & Delivery […]


  2. Cognitive Bias in Training Part II: Needs Analysis | Workplace Karma Avatar

    […] first part in this series is here, where I talk about cognitive bias during the training design and development […]


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