752461. “Take a minute to memorize this number.” This was the instruction given to me by a high school acquaintance conducting a study on memory. He then gave me a short questionnaire. After it was over, he asked me to recall and tell him the number.

752461. To this day, I remember it. How did that happen? For learning and development professionals, this is important. We work to reinforce retention and recall for our learners, and to overcome anything that gets in the way. For example, the longer a person goes without using what they’ve learned, the less likely they will be able to perform effectively. So we create opportunities for practice.

One of the most effective ways to begin that reinforcement is the use of advanced organizers. An advanced organizer provides a high-level visual outline of the main topics and events in a course. It can be as simple as an agenda, as complex as a diagram, or as unexpected as a comic strip.

So, why and how do advanced organizers increase retention and performance?

  • During a learning event, an advanced organizer gives participants a visual preview of topics and activities. This prepares the brain to absorb and organize information, which helps recall and performance later. Also, we know that visual cues are much better for recall than verbal cues alone. Finally, the organizer gives learners a sense of control; they feel better prepared for what is to come, so they are relaxed and attentive when learning.
  • After the learning event, learners can use the organizer when they need to perform. For example, if I give you a flow chart showing the best process for making the ultimate peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then teach you to do it, you’ll not only remember the steps more clearly, you can use the flowchart at home in your kitchen if you forget what to do.

That high school researcher was testing the hypothesis that the questionnaire he gave his subjects after they learned the number would inhibit our recall. But he made one critical mistake. By telling me I would be asked to recall the number, he was essentially giving me an advanced organizer – a preview of events. He prepared my brain for what was coming next, so it focused on that number instead of the questionnaire. 752461. All these years later, I still remember the number, I remember the experience, and I use its lessons in my own work as an instructional designer.