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Active interactions & visualizations to aid in learning and retention

Image by Kristendawn from Pixabay 

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 10 minutes

Active interactions & visualizations to aid in learning and retention

You need to visualise that which you want to achieve and you will be able to achieve it.

You’ve likely heard this before from various self-help guru’s or “self-made” digital nomads that have been featured in Forbes or something similar. Visualisation is, of course, a strong and proven tool within psychology and it can aid you to achieve a certain goal or outcome.

Though a misconception that I’ve always come across with those ‘empowering’ articles is that they fail to mention that visualisation techniques are based on both process and outcome. And that they need to be based on a reality that can be rehearsed to be achieved. Visualising or rather imagining that you have €500,000 will be a lot less helpful than visualising the active process to complete the project for the job that will allow you to get closer to the €500,000 target.

In this piece, therefore, I would like to explore and illustrate how the techniques of visualisation rehearsals can be used within an active and live interactive, but a fictional, experience. And how these tools and techniques help improve skills and augment learning and information retention in individuals who go through such experiences.

Generally, there are two types of rehearsal techniques: outcome-focused and process-focused. ‘Outcome’ focused is the most familiar method used within visualisation practices. It is the one where you focus on the desired outcome you want, imagining yourself in the job you want, or in the house you want. This is a purely mental and private exercise; it aids in concentrating your mind on the objective you desire but doesn’t really aid you in getting there.

‘Process’ is the technique we will be dealing with, as this can be both a physical and mental exercise, as it deals with simulating the steps that are required to achieve an outcome. Naturally, it uses the prior method as well to focus the mind on the objective/outcome but is far more grounded in a reality that can be experienced, replicated and rehearsed.

Repetition, realism and structure are therefore the key to enabling the active, process-oriented technique to work well, and for a longer period. As we move through the basis and the benefits, remember that these techniques are explained from the point of view of using them within team-oriented and game-based learning experiences that aid individuals in practising essentials skills so that they can be more effective in the workplace and in their lives in general. The aim is that the experience is engaging, challenging and enjoyable enough that it becomes a repeatable (memory) activity that cements learning and improves long-term retention of that learning.

The basis of live visualisation

The basis for this is using game-based experiences as a medium for both the theory and practice of visualisation rehearsal techniques in imagined situations. It is the base concept of live, real-life, but imaginary, activities that aid the learning process within an individual.

Essentially, the individual is physically placed within a fictional setting, in accordance with the mental visualisation technique, and from there it takes the individual through the simulated steps of how they got there and more importantly what to do now that they are already there. For example, it is of little use to have you visualise what you would do once you are in the middle of a natural crisis/disaster. Nor would it be of use for you to imagine how it happened, crises can often be spontaneous events, without forewarning. It is, however, useful for you to be placed in a fictional, imagined crisis and be given the opportunity to navigate through it, either failing or succeeding and learning from that experience.

The key for this to be effective is the level of realism that can be achieved when realising the visualised rehearsal of the imagined, fictional situation. It does not need to a hundred per cent real, that would not be feasible financially and it may create unintended outcomes. An example of enough realism can be found in the military, they have been doing it for decades (if not longer), where soldiers will train with their full gear on and in conditions that they may face when they enter real combat situations. This trains both their bodies and their minds for what they can expect out in the field. With such an example there needs to be sufficient realism implemented into the experience that it is immersive enough and that it doesn’t foster any flawed habits and mistakes that can be brought over into real-life situations.

It is a very fine line when dealing with a realised visualisation of certain experiences and the reality that needs to be embedded in them to make them effective and meaningful. The balance is in finding a pared-down version of the reality that the individual will face, that at once lets them experience that reality but is not overwhelming enough that their mind cannot focus on the skills that they are there to practice and rehearse. One method is to do multiple experiences where specialised knowledge is built upon through each rehearsal experience. Games, and specifically role-playing games, build up your skills through levels and minor monster encounters, to train you so that you have the full skillset when you eventually face the final boss.

And like games, these experiences also need to be grounded with rules and structures and remain consistent to those throughout. To further add to their effectiveness, they can also be team-based experiences, this addition helps to promote a communal feeling among those taking part. Not having these four things may result in the effect of the learning experience becoming lessened. If there is any lingering doubt to this then simply look at what Pagani (Pagani, L. 2015) discovered when observing children who took part in structured games. The benefit that children gained from playing in structured games is a sense of belonging which allowed them to understand and respect not only each other but also a world where rules and responsibilities were important. Because of the nature of needing to work together and the inherent accountability of that, these children were able to better understand the real-world through the medium of a game.

The benefits of practice and visualisation

In a research study done at the University of California (Sukel, 2012), it was discovered how important repetition and practice was in sports games. The research study explored the above highlighted process of how rehearsed action, observation and recall/repetition worked within the minds of individuals, athletes in this particular research study.

This process of rehearsal allowed for the mind and brain to become familiar with a certain activity to the point where it did not need to overthink on the task it was currently engaged with. Actively taking part in an activity such as catching a passed ball in rugby while the opponent is barrelling down on them, allowed them to become familiar with the experience and later mentally rehearse it and learn from their observations of seeing other team members go through similar experiences. Once such a player who has been rehearsing this is placed in a realistic situation, such as a cup match, then their brain will automatically do what is required and not overthink the activity. As determined, overthinking in critical situations can deteriorate the performance of individuals, since the brain’s verbal systems process information slower than the brain’s motor systems.

You may be thinking though; this is all well and good for an athlete, their career is based on their motor systems, how does this aid me when I’m dealing with a difficult conversation at work? But the point of the example is that through fictional rehearsal, the paralysis of overthinking can be lessened and overcome. Despite whether the verbal system is slower than the motor system. The systems in our brain that deal with stress are the same for those of an athlete as for a businessman.  Practising in stressful situations will lessen the need and load for overthinking and promote faster processing of information that is effectively thrown at you.

With enough practice and visualising of an activity, you will be able to enter a state that should be recognisable to those that have read anything about gamification and game-based learning; flow. Being able to enter a state of flow through practised rehearsals enables the mind more time to focus and prepare on the next action as soon as it has responded to the prior action or event. Through this, your mind is adjusting faster and you are making smarter critical decisions in demanding situations.

The result of this is also an improvement in mental toughness. To bring it back to sports games, as the sports psychologist Graham Jones explains mental toughness: “the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands that sport places on a performer” (2002). Having this ‘edge’ allows individuals to stay focused under pressure, confident in their decision making, remain calm and motivated, despite the adversity that has presented itself in a given situation. And this is true in every facet of life.

Final Thoughts

As should be apparent at this point, the techniques of visualisation should not simply remain in the realm of the abstract and the imagination. To truly gain the maximum benefit you need to use the techniques with physical practice as well as visualised practice. Gaining experience and exercising the ‘muscle’ memory, with the metaphor that the brain is also like a muscle that can be trained, as well as analysing and rehearsing or reimagining situations for greater learning and retention. All this aid’s in improving your comprehension and cognition of an activity that you are undertaking or about to undertake. Through the repeatable fictional experience, the actions and language required for the real event are gained at a higher pace, due to the intermingling of the physical and visual practices.

To grab a final example from another sports psychologist, Richard Suinn (Bailey, 2014), who discovered that visualisation techniques triggered the development and building of a neural blueprint that helped facilitate an improved, future performance within individuals. The example used in the study was that of skiers visualizing skiing, though imagining the activity did not replace it. The fact that they had practised the skill many times over and the act of pretending and rehearsing it in their mind, did aid the skiers in creating stronger neural connections so that when they needed to, they would perform better in the real situation.

As with sports and business, both high-stress environments, having the opportunity to develop and practice necessary skills within an enjoyable game-environment can be very beneficial. Hopefully, this piece has illustrated and illuminated one of the techniques used within game-based learning that enables greater learning and knowledge retention within high-achieving individuals.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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