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Learning doesn't happen in the middle!

Filmmakers know that the feeling the audience leaves with has a huge impact on the movie's success. It's what the audience remembers, and determines how (and whether) they talk about the movie to others. When filmmakers do audience testing, they're trying to get the ending right, and that's why usually the best music of the movie is saved for the ending credits.

It's the psychological princple known as primacy-recency, and it matters to advertisers, writers, entertainers, and teachers.


When it comes to retention and recall, the middle sucks.

People tend to remember beginning and endings better than middles.

So the solution is simple: have more beginnings and endings in your message.

A 90-minute lecture with no breaks means that most of the material is presented somewhere in the vast cognitive wasteland of the middle.

A series of 15-minute mini-lectures punctuated by exercises for deeper processing of the new content, means a lot more beginnings and endings, so more opportunities for better learning, especially better recall and retention.

The more granular the message "chunks", the better in most cases.

We don't always do a great job at this in some of our books... but it's a goal. When we find a chapter getting reaaaaaaaaaally long, we try to look for places within the chapter where we can split up the content, usually with exercises, to give the learner's brain a chance to help build the knowledge in their head (remember, learning isn't a push model), and to create more beginnings and endings.

This is especially useful in the classroom, where teachers can usually make a dramatic difference in learning simply by having more beginnings and endings.


The beginning is your chance to get their attention, using the principles we've talked about earlier on getting past the brain's crap filter, etc. This is often your only opportunity to make the case for why the learners should care about the message you're about to communicate. We tell our authors that the first two chapters of a Head First book will take them as long to create as the entire rest of the book!

Because the beginning matters so much to us. If we don't succeed at making people smarter, we're doomed, since that's the only goal of our books, and the only reason people buy them. But the readers won't learn unless they can stay with it and read the whole thing. We're not writing reference books, where the reader can drop in and out to get what they need... our readers have to pretty much read the whole book start to finish. And just like all fiction writers know, you have only a limited number of pages in which to get them involved. If a reader puts our book on the shelf and doesn't pick it up again, or never gets past the first few chapters, we've failed.

If I were designing a course, I'd spend a huge amount of time and energy designing the beginning. (And of course I know what I'd leave out--the whole instructor-establishes-credibility thing.)


At Sun, we (the instructors) could be broken into two categories--those who simply let their class fizzle out at the end, and those who tried to have a Big Finish. The Big Finish instructors tried to use the same principle the filmmakers used, to make sure the students left with a really good feeling, on the assumption that this would determine how they talked about the course when they got back to work.

The goals for a Big Finish in the classroom (or other learning experience) were to:

* Make sure the learners realized that they had learned. That they had been changed (or at least something in their head had changed) by the experience. We don't want them thinking about us; we want them thinking that they kick ass.

* Leave them feeling energized and positive about the experience, in hopes that they'll want to recommend it to others.

But some instructors would occasionally do the worst kind of ending:

In the interest of "covering" the rest of the material when time is short near the end, just skip all the final labs and exercises and "blow through" the rest of the content in the course book. This of course causes the student's head to... explode, especially since the stuff at the end is usually the most advanced.

This produces the opposite of what the instructor wanted, because it leaves the student feeling overwhelmed and possibly stupid, even if during the rest of the course the student was keeping up. And to paraphrase Roger Schank, "What the hell does COVERING the material mean?" Cover it with what? Covering does not equal learning, and in fact it destroys some of the learning that came before the "let's jam through this last part".

Again, this whole covering at the end thing is well-intended; the instructors are usually doing it so that the student doesn't leave without hearing the expert give them all the information. The problem, of course, is that the student didn't come to hear the instructor spit out the information, even when it's peppered with deep insider and time-saving real-world tips. It's better to make sure the learner nails a smaller amount of content than be overwhelmed by more.

The question is not, "How much did the learner HEAR during the class?" but rather, "How was the learner's brain changed by the learning experience?" You've all had this happen--you take a class and when you leave, you know you've heard a ton of good information, but you still can't do anything.

So advertisers, teachers, filmmakers, and authors are all paying attention to the primacy-recency principle, for a variety of reasons, but here's one of my favorites: teaching single-but-looking men to become a "Don Juan".

Think about what you can do to make sure the message in your book, course, ad message, whatever has more beginnings and endings.

Remember: the middle sucks!

Posted by Kathy on January 10, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Jan 11, 2005 5:36:16 AM


I'm not trying to be a comedian, and this is one of the best blogs (content wise) I've come across in the last few months.. but this post made me realize that the posts around here are pretty long ;-)

I tend to speed read them, skipping some of the middle content, and then come back to them when I have more time. Perhaps this blog could also be a bit more granular? Anyway, keep up the good work :)

Posted by: Peter Cooper | Jan 10, 2005 10:42:12 AM

You just HAD to call me on it Peter ; )
I'm going to paraphrase the quote that's been attributed to Blaise Pascal and Mark Twain (among others): "I'd have written a shorter letter if I'd had more time..."

Knowledge design takes prior planning and good editing, and for now my goal on the blog is to just throw stuff up for our new co-authors. So, these entries are my off-the-top-of-my-head rough ramblings. But yeah, that's the opposite of what I'd recommend for designing real learning content (which is not quick or easy to do).

For books, I'm willing (and forced) to take the time to design and "eat my own dog food". God, I sound like the worst kind of parent, "Do as I say, not as I do." Consider these entries random data, with zero design. In fact when my O'Reilly editor finds out I have this blog, I'm in big trouble (I'm already a week late on the Tiger book and not supposed to be doing anything but that), so that's why I'm cleverly disguising these entries to look like something I whip out over coffee in the morning. Yeah, that's it... I'm *trying* to make them look quick and dirty : )

Not buying that? OK, once I've got most of the key things up, I do plan to go back and do a better job at chunking. But yes Peter, you're absolutely right--these posts are NOT good examples of what I'm recommending for those designing real learning (or even decent communication) and I'll try to do better as I go forward!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 10, 2005 11:44:38 AM

I'm using the Head First Java book for a Java study group I am leading at my work, and I'm about to go teach a lesson. I'm now going to be very conscious of the beginning and end of it.

I stumbled across this blog since I went to check out the Head First Java website. I only had time to read this latest entry, but look forward to going back and reading some more. Thanks for contribution to this great series!

Posted by: Phil Makara | Jan 10, 2005 11:52:48 AM

Wow. Even your comment was long, that's some serious procrastination. ;-)
Keep up the good stuff, great reading for other procrastinators... :-)

Posted by: Pauline | Jan 10, 2005 2:22:13 PM

Hey Pauline, aren't you in the middle of writing a book I'm editing? Payback time ; ) Wait a minute -- what the hell are you doing reading this blog?!#$ You have a chapter due...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 10, 2005 2:26:42 PM

I just finished a 3 day course, and boy do I wish the guy giving that, read your blog !!!

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jan 10, 2005 10:39:19 PM

...it sounds like studying should be approached
with an iterative incremental approach :-)

I love this blog, please Kathy keep the posts

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 10, 2005 11:41:01 PM

Great blog, and great post. My offer is that all this can be applied to conversations too. I'm making a conscious effort these days particularly with the phone; face to face comes easier to me. I find a real challenge in rounding off a call with a feel good ending that sounds natural rather than patronising!

The conversation here on the difference between what you do rather than say in the post, apart from a great mea culpa moment, has started a real itch in my brain somewhere - there's something really curious in there...

Posted by: Huw | Jan 11, 2005 12:44:53 AM

Hey Kathy,
Could you use a smaller line spacing in this blog? Its really annoying only to see 15 lines or so, and to have to scroll all the time ..
My brain wants to see a whole "picture" of the text, not collection of lines ...

Posted by: Peter | Jan 11, 2005 3:14:15 AM

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