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From Memory—Or Not?

I was asked recently, “Should we train our students to learn this ‘from memory’?”  This is a good question because of two facts that are at odds with each other:

  1. It takes a lot longer to learn to do something from memory.
  2. Training time is almost always scarce.

Elephant Cropped Image courtesy

In organizations where learners are tested, whether they can use a job aid or other information at testing time makes a huge difference. You can expect:

  • Reduced training time
  • Increased comfort and confidence for learners

Whether tested or not, with support for memory, you can expect:

  • Earlier use of new skills and on-the-job contributions
  • Improved performance on the job

With experience, many often-repeated tasks will become automatic.  But, between “I have no idea how to do this” and “I can do this in my sleep” our learners need:

  • To know what’s expected of them (the learning objectives)—including how they’ll be tested
  • Practice and feedback about how they’re doing
  • Some amount of repetition, depending on, for example:
    • How complicated the tasks are for the learners
    • Prior knowledge & experience with similar tasks
    • Learner motivation and aptitude for the tasks
  • Ability to practice in conditions similar to those on the job

So, how to decide? Can we let them learn to do the task with support like a job aid or online help site? Or, should we spend the time in training, before they are doing this task outside the safety of the learning environment, to have them learn to do it from memory?

Many years ago I had the opportunity to take Joe Harless’ Job Aids Workshop… from Joe. He taught us some principles that work well when deciding: shall we make a job aid, or should we train this for memory?

Take Time in Training—Learn This “By Heart”

For situations like the examples below, you’ll want to provide enough time and practice in training so that your students learn do their tasks without referring to job aids or other help.

  • Something to do in a dangerous situation or crisis where speed is essential
    • A future EMT learns to administer CPR
    • A police officer chases an armed suspect
  • A procedure that is performed all the time (routine)
    • A clerk scans groceries and works the cash register
    • A copier repair technician clears a paper jam
  • Environmental barriers that make the task difficult to do while using a job aid
    • A lineman makes repairs atop a telephone pole
    • A police officer “reads” Miranda rights in the dark 
  • Social expectations about what the performer should know
    • A store clerk directs a customer to the pasta shelves
    • A doctor provides diagnoses and treatments for common ailments
  • Regulations or internal policy require that something be known by memory
    • Managers recognize instances of discrimination or harassment
    • New employees list the company’s safety regulations for their areas

Save Time in Training—Learn to Do This Using Job Aids

For situations like the examples below, you can reduce the time in training. The learners should still practice, but they can use aids to memory.

  • Complex procedures with many decision points that take a long time to memorize
    • Customer service reps process orders with complicated product and service solutions 
    • Airline pilots prepare for take-off
  • Procedures or skills that are rarely used
    • Clerks perform quarterly tasks
    • Managers access the performance management budget tool once a year
  • Tasks that change frequently
    • Software customer service reps advise customers on constantly-changing products
    • Medical billers work with ever-changing Medicare regulations
  • Procedures that are similar and easy to confuse with other procedures
    • Financial assistants manage highly-regulated paperwork for different kinds of retirement accounts
    • Insurance verification reps prepare paperwork that varies from state-to-state
  • Procedures that are always done in the same location
    • Knowledge workers clear a copier’s paper jam without calling the technician
    • Employees use the break room’s espresso machine (the first few times)
  • Tasks when time is not critical
    • Customer service reps file receipts into various folders, depending on type
    • New librarians label new books for shelving

Do Both: Train for Memory and Provide Job Aids

In some cases, where professionals memorize their tasks, but where there are also high consequences for error, you’ll want to provide both training for memory and job aids, too. For example:

  • Pilots must be able to respond to emergencies automatically, but they are also required to use emergency checklists at the same time (usually with the co-pilot reading out the steps).
  • Many doctors and emergency-room teams use checklists to ensure that they check in with each other, perform obvious tasks (like washing their hands), and count the sponges to ensure none are left behind in their patients. (For more on the impressive improvements in patient care being made in emergency rooms, see The Checklist Manifesto.)


As instructional designers or instructors plan lessons, they must decide whether their learners should be able to do a task from memory by the time they are done with training—or not.

Often, your learners can learn to do something well enough to get started, with support. If learning for memory is not absolutely required at first, ensure that performance will improve over time by providing supportive material that’s easy to access.

The decision to train for memory means a significant increase in training time (easily three to ten times longer). Making that decision is a judgment call, and it makes sense to carefully weigh whether it’s worth the extra time.


Book: Job Aids and Performance Support: Moving From Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere

Book: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Website: Dave’s Whiteboard—When to Build a Job Aid


What is something you were glad you learned by heart—or what is something you learned from memory that you could have learned to look up instead? 

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