Beyond 100 percent: Recall, Application & Fluency

Content Tester Joseph Dorrell draws on his experiences with a recent game to discuss the way we gain knowledge, develop fluency, and change behaviour as our skills and awareness develop.

A few months ago, I became obsessed with a game on my phone. It's called 'Four Letters'. It's a very simple game about putting groups of four letters into the correct order to form a word, all against the clock. Although I work with words every day, it was a new task to me, a new skill.

Playing 'Four Letters'

At first I could get runs of 30 or so correct answers before I ran into a patch of difficult words, and eventually ground to a halt. However, I persevered – and within a few months I could consistently reach scores of over 500. I didn't need to think about what the words were any more, my fingers just 'knew' what to do, automatically and instantly. I had reached a point of fluency – albeit in a skill not particularly useful outside of the game. 

It also got me thinking: What is fluency, and how can we help people to achieve fluency in useful skills? Here's my exploration of this.

What do we mean by fluency?

Most people have an intuitive understanding of what is mean by fluency. You, dear reader, may be fluent in touch-typing, or tennis, or JavaScript. If we are told of someone who is able to speak fluent Spanish, we can instantly imagine what that sounds like and what that entails, even if we are unable to speak Spanish ourselves. They will be speaking fairly quickly, in a way that mother-tongue speakers recognize and understand. They will have a large vocabulary and be able to adapt their language to be useful in many situations. They will speak, seemingly, as if they are thinking in Spanish – which they may well be.

Despite being able to recognize fluency intuitively, it's useful to formalize and define the term, especially if seeking to apply the concept outside of its traditional sphere of language learning, and start to think about fluency as a desirable level of achievement and expertise that's generalizable to any acquired skill. The following definition is my own, but informed by Binder et al.:

Fluency: The ability to recall and apply knowledge within a certain subject area in order to complete some task – and to do so accurately, quickly, and without hesitation.

This definition effectively has three parts:

1. Recall – The ability to remember knowledge

2. Application – The ability to use knowledge in new situations

3. Speed – The ability to do both of the above quickly and accurately – possibly without conscious thought

Recall & Application

It's important to realize that recall of information, and application of information are separate thinking skills, but they are both necessary to achieve fluency:

A person might be able to understand information and apply it well, but without the ability to also remember and recall that information, that person will have to rely on performance support material and resources whenever they are doing so. Similarly, someone could effectively memorise facts or large portions of text (eidetic or 'photographic' memory is an extreme example of this), but fail to develop their skill in applying this knowledge to practical situations.

Fig. 2 – Fluency pyramid

But if one has both of these skills at a high level in a particular area of knowledge, and can combine them to complete tasks quickly and accurately, then this can be thought of as fluency. Of course, many learning methods enable learners to practice both recall and application at the same time, and being good at one thinking skill can often help to reinforce training in the other. However, if we don't differentiate between Recall and Application skills, we run the risk of inefficient learning.

Is fluency always appropriate?
There are many different subjects that one can learn about, and many different methods by which one can go about learning. But it's also important to consider the degree of mastery which learners should aim for. For many skills, learning to a high point of fluency may simply not be necessary or desirable.

When deciding on the subject matter that needs to be learnt, for example company hospitality policies, we need to ask questions like:

  • Do learners need to be able to quote this policy document verbatim?
  • Is it enough to have theoretical knowledge without practice and application?
  • Can learners only be considered competent once they have successfully put this knowledge into practice multiple times?
  • Is there value in being able to make decisions independently, without reference to colleagues or resources?
  • Is it enough to only be able to apply knowledge while referring to resources, colleagues, or policy documents (i.e. performance support)?

Learning takes time, attention and energy, and learning is always a payoff between depth, breadth and mastery of knowledge. Smart learning administered for large corporate learning cohorts requires a certain balance: To learn one particular subject to a greater degree of fluency may come at the expense of missing out on other skills. It's a good idea, when designing learning solutions, to determine exactly what level of fluency learners need to achieve over all the information that is given to them. This way, we can respect learners' time and effort.

Another important thing to consider is that different subjects are of vastly different informational sizes. My 'four letters' game above has a comparatively small amount of content to master (any four-letter English language word). Other subjects, such as a foreign language or a technical production process, may be larger and require considerably longer to achieve a point of fluency. Soft skills, which deal with social interactions, are particularly large – human psychology is rich and deep and difficult for anyone to understand, and at any point also intersects with situational cues that may have suggest a number of likely outcomes. The larger a subject is, the more time will be required to become fluent.

Sometimes, this can be as long as a lifetime.

How do we achieve fluency?
So, once we have defined our subject area and determined that fluency is our goal, how do we practically go about achieving this? This is a general framework of my thoughts

1. Not just a list of facts – it's not enough just to give learners pages of facts, and expect them to be able to get any better at either recalling or applying that information. This might help them to be aware of the information, and if they already have good learning habits, they might teach themselves – but most people will forget the material and have no practice in applying it.

2. Make the content understandable – once a learner understands the information, both recall and application become much easier. In digital learning good writing, images, diagrams and design are so important because these are what help convey information, concepts and relationships between ideas to the learner. Good learning design is always a requirement.

3. Make it engaging – However precise your explanations, learners who are bored will switch off in a matter of minutes, remembering very little. Making explanations concise makes sure that we respect learners' time. Gamification can help here too, and learners can be engaged by the challenge of quizzes, or the camaraderie of team learning. Why not have a read of my previous blog on engagement in games

4. Repetition enables recall – Learn something once, and it will be forgotten soon; learn something multiple times, and it will stay with you for many years. Spaced repetition, where information is re-learned multiple times with increasingly long periods between each repetition, is one of the most effective ways of turning short-term memory into deep, long-term memory.

5. Challenge learners to apply information to new situations – Application isn't just about knowing the right answers; it's about really understanding how the information works in a general sense, so that it can be deployed even in new, unfamiliar contexts. So in assessments and games, include questions with different contexts, and work in a practical component to any assessment.

4. Repetition enables recall.

6. Get learners to be creative with their knowledge – Multiple choice questions are an excellent way to test basic knowledge and short-term fact-remembering, and this is easy to assess. But to encourage deeper understanding of the information, it's sometimes useful to pose more open-ended questions, ask learners to summarize in their own words, or set tasks which require multiple pieces of information to be brought together. This encourages learners to get used to thinking both linguistically and laterally with this new information.

4. Repetition enables recall.

7. Make mastery open-ended – Even the best of us get rusty over time if we don't revise and apply our knowledge – so keep learning! If there is information that learners need to keep on top of, but don't use in their day-to-day work, make sure that the content is revised and re-mastered annually. Having learning content that builds on previous courses also helps to revise the previous material while encouraging fluency in new, more in-depth areas.

So... What would you like to learn?