How Instruction Can Hurt Performance

Copyright © 2006 by James A. Davis

An Accident

The Instant Solution

A Pep Talk

A Simple Experiment
The Surprise Results

Enter Patterns
Disruptive Patterns

It started as an accident.

I had memorized several charts as part of a learning experiment and could recite them perfectly.

When it came time to apply the information, however, I failed miserably. I couldn't piece the data together fast enough to handle the task. After doing so well in the written portion, my poor performance was a surprise.

And it persisted.

Questions tumbled out:

What was the difference between reciting and doing a task?

Was this fresh insight into the study verses performance connection?

I could learn other subjects. What was different about this information?

Since the problem wouldn't go away, could I use the persistence to chase down a solution?

These questions led to a two-year investigation that not only produced an explanation but identified ways to learn more effectively.

The Instant Solution

Amazingly, my learning block cleared when I reformatted the information. Nothing changed but the format, and my performance went from near zero to near perfect. Instantly.

Well, not exactly instantly, as it took over a year to find the correct data patterns and to identify techniques for rapid learning.

It turns out that certain information patterns translate into solid performance; other formats actually hinder the ability to use the knowledge (anti-learning formats).

That's a brief summary, but I wanted you to know where we're headed. In upcoming sections, you'll learn to format learning material for optimal performance. You'll also learn how to identify problem formats and how to restructure legacy material into more effective forms.

A mix of examples will lead you through possible information structures.

A Pep Talk

My stomach still does little flips when I consider what happened. Once you experience the shift from confused idiot to smooth performer, it's hard being an objective commentator.

I'd like to grab a megaphone and march through the country extolling the benefits of optimum patterns.

I'd like to shake every teacher and say, "You have an opportunity to revamp education." I'd like to tackle our military generals and say, "This training will save lives."

Unfortunately, hardly anyone appreciates a good shaking anymore. I'll forego the shaking, but the megaphone remains an option.

A Simple Experiment

Before digging into pattern analysis techniques, you should know how the effort started.

It was innocent enough. I needed to verify a teaching technique for a software game project. Four days were allotted.

This four-day experiment turned into a two-year research odyssey.


Sandy said, "Four days to two years, wow. You need a class on time management."

Ed said, "Stay away from our software group. They have their own problems with scheduling."

The two-year shift wasn't about schedule slippage. The results from these four days were so contradictory, so opposed to current learning theory, that the software project was shelved and replaced with a learning system experiment.

The Surprise Results

The original experiment was designed to verify memory techniques.

The goal was to create a software game using traditional memorization methods. Repetition and reciting would be tied to obstacles within the game. The more quickly game players learned and applied the information, the higher their score. The experiment was intended as a simple validation of repetition and recall principles.

I began by testing the repetition techniques myself.

In the initial memorization phase, progress was rapid. Within a short time, I was able to recite the information with almost total recall. I could write out the data as fast as my hand could move. The average score was 99%.

My high score seemed to validate the learning methods. Almost done.

For the final test, I needed to apply my recently acquired information.

Then it hit.

When I tried to apply the information during a high-pressure exercise, I froze. I couldn't recall a thing.

The effect was amazing. I could recite in a test environment, but I couldn't use the information under real-life pressure.

I reviewed, studied, and tried again. Same result. I normally did well under pressure, so the failure was perplexing. I could recite, but I couldn't use the information in a performance setting.

As the problem persisted, an element of excitement surfaced. This could be a genuine discovery about how we learn. Pure recall doesn't translate into real life usefulness.

I knew it — all that memorization in second grade was useless torture.

I shelved the software game project and looked to uncover the "real" best way to study. Little did I know the twisted path this decision would uncover.


Sandy said, "Wait a minute. You could recite the information accurately. That's good enough for my current classes."

Yes, low-level recall can suffice in many instances. Yet other times the ability to make decisions under pressure is more critical than simple recall.

Enter Patterns

Let's look at the results.

When performing under pressure, patterns made the difference.

Shaping information into patterns made them easier to learn. Furthermore, these content maps improved decision-making in real-time activities.

Interesting, but not earth shattering.

A good deal of information is known on the potential of pattern-based learning. For example, when it comes to learning a series of information, the number of items in the series is a key factor. If there's more than nine items, we have a more difficult time of recalling the list. This is a well-known, thoroughly tested pattern in educational psychology. (G.A. Miller, "The Magic Number Seven, plus or minus two. Some limits on our capacity for processing information." Psychological Review, 1956, 63, 81-96.)

Here's the surprise.

While some patterns speed learning, other patterns produce an opposite effect, even when they use the same information. No content is removed.

Presentation is the only issue.

In later experiments, these "anti-learning" patterns hindered short-term learning, and long-term recall dropped to almost zero. Performance was horrible. "Anti-learning" formats created a learning disaster.

Disruptive Patterns

Real Life

The implications are serious.

It means that material from anti-learning patterns can't be used in a fast paced, real-time environment. Let's say you memorized several tables well enough to recite them correctly. Standard exams would label you as an expert.

When you tried to apply it in a complex situation, however, you wouldn't be able to retrieve the data quickly enough. You'd fail. And with the persistence of anti-learning, even extensive practice wouldn't help.

Exams and Performance

Let's get this straight. Repetition and simple recall are okay, but performance based on this information fails.

So, even though it took longer, it would be possible to study hard and remember the anti-learning material for a few days. You could, in fact, do well on a written test the next day. That sounds acceptable.

The problem comes with performance. Short-term, anti-learning based information can't be recalled rapidly. The extra steps from gathering the information in your mind add seconds to your thinking. That doesn't sound like much, but in the heat of real-time action, it's crippling.

Ironically, the assessment score from the written exam would say you're qualified, but when forced to apply the knowledge, you'd fail.

That may be acceptable for those needing to pass a test, but it creates serious problems for those in the field.


Carol said, "Good information, bad information, but it's all the same info. It seems that once you learn something, you have it."

Ed said, "I can't think of an example when learning isn't learning."

In reality, most courses of study need a solid "on-the-job-training" period before the person can be usefully employed.

Unfortunately, it's worse than that. Your study may have hurt your ability to perform.

The idea that format alone can hinder performance is not intuitive, but the effect exists. And yes, information structure is the key factor. One format is harder to learn and results in little usable knowledge, while another presentation format leads to rapid learning and smooth performance.

The results had my attention. I had always believed that any patterns would help organize information and facilitate learning. Not so.

What's next?

The patterns in complex information are not always obvious.

A couple of examples may help.

Before examining the pattern shaping techniques, let's look at patterns in the alphabet and an imaginary grocery store.

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