Learning Doesn't Happen in the Middle

🧑‍🎨 Creator(s)
🗓️ Publish Date
January 10, 2005
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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!