by Karen Caldwell, 18 August 2021
We face an avalanche of information on a daily basis. When it’s valuable and worthwhile content, most of us are at a loss as to how we can not only retain the good stuff, but also use it strategically.
If you’re a cradle-to-grave learner looking to deepen your learning and boost your performance, consider adding performance aids to your learning strategy tool kit.
Let’s get started by breaking down the term itself. You may have heard of job aids? A job aid could be a poster or even sticky note near your work station or desk that you refer to as a quick’n’dirty reference. Even a strategically placed sign that says “Employees must wash their hands” is a job aid, as is a recipe. The point is, job aids remind you just when you need it, or provides “just in time” reference for info you don’t necessarily need – or want – to commit to memory.
Enter “job aid 2.0,” the performance aid – a broader, more comprehensive reference that ideally, you create. It also has greater reach and more uses than a job aid. I create and use them in my own learning, as well as my teaching and consulting work, and I have my students and trainees create them for academic, professional, and any other context where perform matters.
What are performance aids?
- Performance aids take many forms, and I share several examples below. Primarily, performance aids are references that are made by and – usually – for you. And yes, they help you perform.
- Performance aids communicate a large amount of information in an organized, coherent “package” that usually combines text with images, as well as other graphic organizers such as tables, graphs, checklists, process diagrams, maps, and so on.
- Performance aids are user-centred. They take whatever form works for you and are designed according to the type of information and its just in time use. That means it serves as a quick and meaningful reference when you need it.
Creating performance aids as part of your learning requires deep thinking about the concepts you’re pulling together, often making the abstract concrete – with a combination of visuals and text. Not easy, right? That’s why it takes longer and is best done in an iterative cycle that involves:
- collecting & curating content – usually from multiple sources,
- processing the content to identify relationships, connections, associations, etc. – and organizing it into meaningful chunks, and
- sharing your take on the content by combining visuals with text (and if you like, audio or video)
The “iterative” bit is baked into the process we’re all too familiar with. Just as we click “save” (or “publish”), that good ol’ avalanche of information keeps coming and we find more gems we want to include in our performance aid. That’s a good thing and is an indicator that your neurons are firing!
Ok, enough proselytizing. I bet you’d like to get some concrete ideas of what I’m going on about.
Checklists are powerful performance aids and especially helpful “scaffolds” for folks involved in performing complex steps and processes (see this article by Greene and a TED talk from Harvard surgeon, Atul Gawande (long version, 19:19 minutes; short version, 6 minutes). Creating a checklist alone or with a team, then returning to it to tweak and adjust as you test it out, leads to successful, accurate, efficient, and yes, safer performance across the board. In the classroom, you can try creating your own checklist of common mistakes to check for (draft a list as soon as you instructor gives you feedback on your writing, for example). Or create an “ideal day” checklist that includes habits and daily “to do” tasks. For team projects at school or work, discuss what needs to happen and draft a checklist to make sure it happens.
- Academic Writing: I have my doctoral students create checklists to help them to focus. Creating a checklist of their common writing mistakes means that they can free their minds (and cognitive load) to focus on the important task, communicating complex information. They save the nit-picky formatting, referencing, and other mechanical elements ’til the end – using a checklist tailored to their own common mistakes.
- Streamlining work processes: In the workplace, checklists are powerful tools for processes and steps to follow. On hiring committees and admissions teams, I’ve co-created checklists that ensure we follow crucial guidelines and legal requirements for screening potential employees and other candidates. Bottom line is that if you want your team to perform, create checklists together and refer to them regularly. Things change, so you’ll revise as needed.
More and more, we see this powerful tool around us – online and in the signs and posters around us as we drive, shop, sit in waiting rooms, navigate a new environment or job, etc. Infographics combine text (info) and visuals (graphics) to communicate often complex information in efficient and powerful ways, including to:
- tell a story,
- give direction,
- illustrate a process,
- show connections & relationships, etc.
Have a look at Wikipedia for a helpful overview and a great deal of helpful links, and Anna Vital’s article for Adioma for background and “how to” support.
For me, infographics are my most frequent “go to” when I want to really learn a concept or to showcase a lot of information in a concise, accessible way. When I was studying for the comprehensive exam for my doctorate, I collaborated with Dr. Sara Donaldson, my study-mate, to create a timeline infographic that captured some of the key content from three areas on the exam (leadership, learning theory, and research methods).
In the workplace, infographics are everywhere and are used in marketing, safety communication, and inspirational “this is who we are” story telling. I created an infographic prototype for an employment services client to explain the service journey they offered. Note that it’s unfinished (i.e., a true prototype) and includes some explanatory info about what could be added.
These are just a few example of the many uses of infographics. And yes, creating them individually or with a team leads happens over time, can be challenging, and always leads to deeper learning and shared understanding. Oh and the product you create becomes a powerful, compact mode of communication. As I hope you’re beginning to see, infographics (and performance aids in general) take more time and lead to deeper impact.
Graphic organizers are one type of performance aid that is more traditional and familiar. They can be tables, charts, graphs, and diagrams. You’ve probably seen a lot of these in course books, presentation slides, articles, and even research reports.
Consider the deep learning that happens when you create graphic organizers. You’ve pulled together information from pages of content, thought very carefully about how it’s best organized, or chunked, and finally put it all together by organizing it graphically – a “graphic organizer”. Once again, you’re often making the abstract concrete.
I use graphic organizers in the form of tables when I want to communicate important dates, requirements, and other elements of assessments. Or even a course schedule. Imagine if you had to read paragraph upon paragraph just to figure out the due date of an assignment or identify when there will be breaks in the semester!
When I work with organization who have issues communicating with their employees, customers, or stakeholders, I typically have them start with a graphic organizer of the “message”. Usually, it’s clear that the extensive text they’ve compiled in essay-like formats are just not getting their message across to the right audience in effective ways.
It seems simple enough to use a table, Venn diagram, or graph, for example, but once again, the actual process of creating them is anything but straightforward.
TeacherToolKit has a great overview and sample materials for educators, and the info applies beyond the K-12 classroom.
When you do a deep dive about a specific topic, you come across many sources, each with varying levels of value to you and of course, of quality and trustworthiness. When you find the “gems” it’s sometimes worth your while to create some notes in a formal, consistent way with an annotated bibliography (AB) entry.
They sound more academic, but in reality they can and should be thought of as a curated set of resources that are of value to you, and likely to others. Think of a “Recommend Resources” page, for example. Pooja Agarwal, PhD, shares recommended books, for example, under under the Resources tab of her her (fantastic) site, RetrievalPractice.org.
A good annotated bibliography will serve you by reminding you of key content and the value of the resource. Whether creating an excel spreadsheet for your annotated bibliographies or a “recommended resources” page of your website, be sure to include:
- a summary of key information and highlights
- your take on the resource
- information about how to access the resource
You’d be surprised at how valuable and useful annotated bibliographies (ABs) can bel. Here are some examples:
- ABs are common in academia as part of a literature review or any other deep dive into an academic topic. You’re leaving a trail of bread crumbs for yourself by noting down the “takeaways” from the source.
- In the workplace (or academia), if you’re prepping for a presentation or pitch or writing a report and want a quick, handy “note to self” about key sources of info, the annotated bibliography adds gravitas to your work.
- Also in the workplace or in your own personal online world, you may be writing a blog entry or white paper. Creating that annotated bibliography sets you up for quality work and brings polish to your online identity when you click “publish.”
- Finally, the more you share your “take” on content publicly, the more you learn and therefore so do we. Create a dedicated public “space” such as a page of your website or an entire website for this purpose.
Are performance aids worth the work?
Creating performance aids serves both practical and developmental goals. Practical because you end up with a concrete reference tool that guides and scaffolds your performance. And developmental because it leads to lasting knowledge and skills that are meaningful to you and your needs.
And plenty of research backs this up.
Creating performance aids is a form of generative learning, one of the most powerful learning strategies we know of (Brod, 2020; Fiorella & Mayer, 2016). Generative learning means that you are:
- selecting or curating key information that is of value to you,
- organizing information in meaningful and clearly communicated ways for current and future reference, and
- integrating information with your own background knowledge and in combination with other information, often across topics.
This select, organize, integrate (SOI) framework is a powerful habit of thinking – and of managing the avalanche of information. You’ll find more in this seminal article, Eight ways to promote generative learning, by Fiorella and Mayer, and get a better overview of generative learning and a taste of the extensive evidence of its value.
How do I create a performance aid?
Performance aids, designed well, make complex and often abstract ideas, processes, and data easy to understand. You don’t start out with that “helicopter” view or deep understanding, but you develop it as you work on performance aids.
There are many ways to create performance aids, but the keys for you to understand from the beginning are that:
- Creating performance aids starts out messy. Remember, you’re just at the selecting (or curating) stage and it’s tough to know what to include (select) and what to leave behind.
- It can be more powerful with a partner. As you select information, talking it over with someone else can lead to deeper understanding for both of you.
- Organizing and identifying patterns is difficult. These patterns require a bit of a “helicopter” view. You can’t expect to see patterns or have a clean synthesis of what you just learned. It takes effort, discussion, and time. Remember, you’re creating something that is original. It’s yours. That takes hard work.
- Integrating content with other concepts, ideas, theories, etc. is where you begin to feel some confidence and yes, deeper understanding. Over time, those patterns emerge and you see more and more connections. That feeling of confidence is what it means for adults to learn deeply.
Steps to get started
These steps are not always linear, and definitely are not “tidy” (yes, a reminder of the messiness). The key is to be “okay” with uncertainty. That is truly how the adult brain learns best – being curious about what you don’t know and then working through the discomfort of not knowing at the beginning. Always keep that in mind – the brain shuts down when you’re stressed out, but it comes alive when you’re curious!
1 – Purpose – establish the “why” for creating a performance aid
Write out your “why” on a pad of paper, or in a word processing document (Word, Pages). This is ground zero. Keep the paper nearby (or the document open on your device).
For example, you might want a performance aid that inspires you in the morning when you need to focus. The purpose would be to create a one-pager to put on your wall that lays out the essentials to be successful every day. Another example of a purpose is for your course work. The purpose could be to complete a task your instructor has given you to demonstrate your understanding of theories, principles, concepts, and other course content.
2 – Gather & curate content, ideally in your own words
The content should be filtered through your “why”, the purpose for the performance aid. In these early stages, you may not be sure about what should or should not be included and honestly, you shouldn’t stress too much about it. Start gathering and returning to your purpose, your “why”, and you’ll make progress. Ask questions too. Reach out to your instructor and talk it over with another student.
As you write the information on the same pad of paper (or document), you’ll start seeing how the information may – or may not – be connected. This is the organizing stage where the similarities, differences, steps, relationships – you name it – begin to emerge.
Very importantly, leave a trail of breadcrumbs. That means writing down the source of the information, and being as specific as possible, including page numbers and even the date accessed. Don’t rely on your memory. This is non-negotiable – and ethical. You’ll cite your sources when you start creating your performance aid, so make it easy for yourself now by keeping track of all of your sources.
3 – Sketch concepts and relationships, where possible
Avoid linear “copy and paste” note-taking. Instead, start to “connect the dots” and illustrate concepts and relationships among them with visuals. Again, it’s messy and not always a clear path. It shouldn’t be super easy.
4 – Mix the content & look for connections
Spot the relationships, even as basic as what’s different and what’s alike. And note the connections in your own words as well as with visuals, symbols, numbers, etc. It helps to sleep on it, after an intense note-taking session. Walk away, get some distance, and return another day with fresh eyes. Patterns will emerge.
5 – Personalize your notes, especially the a-ha moments
Emotion is at the core of our memories. Adding your own take on the content – your understanding, views and yes, emotions – taps the deeper regions of your brain. Research shows that doing so after the learning event (such as watching a video or reading course materials) as a way to recall the key content—leads to deeper, more meaningful learning. Either way, don’t forget to note it down and add your personal touch!
6 – Make it pretty… over time. This is part of personalizing your work, of course, but when you start to add images, graphics, special formatting, and other design elements, you’re still learning and building your deeper understanding. Revising and reorganizing your content is a creative process too, as well as a form of generative learning. Your brain—and memory—will thank you for it.
7 – Update it regularly. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time and begins in a draft form. This is why starting with paper works great, or noting things down in a Word document is helpful. (But really, using your hand to note information and draw connections is the most powerful and memory-building approach.)
8 – Share your work with others and compare notes. That doesn’t mean their work is right or better! You’ll learn a lot about another student and their interests, levels understanding, and what they selected as “important”! You might get inspired and make changes, and you might just reflect on how cool it is that other people have different interests and ways of understanding. The point is to learn from each other and stay curious.
Give it a try.
If you’re a student, find a quiet place and do a brain dump after reading, listening, or watching the course materials. A brain dump is all about getting content out of your head and into a concrete form, usually words but also some sketching. Do this without any of your notes or the course content nearby. This is super important. Brain dumps help you to see what you know and remember and also, of course, what is still a bit shaky and what you don’t know or remember. You need to forget a little in order to learn more. Trust me.
Once you’ve finished your brain dump and identified some gaps (meaning when you realize that some terms or concepts are not coming easily to mind) go back to the source(s) and fill the gap. Finally, move on to the organizing stage. Draft your performance aid. Jot down the key content that you will want to refer to as you continue your learning journey. The info that will help you perform!
Tips – and Requirements (if you’re my student) – for Quality, Trustworthiness, and Maintenance
- Include your name and the names of anyone who co-created the performance aid with you. No matter what you create. Checklists, for example, are co-created when you do it right, so include everyone’s names. Consider including your email address. Good performance aids are shared. Folks may want to thank you and perhaps collaborate with you.
- Cite your sources (in-text citations). And provide references. APA is a good format to use, but once our course is finished, you can use any system you like.
- Keep your accounts! If you create your work using an online program such as Canva, send yourself an email with your login details, and use other means to save the login information. You’ll always return to update and develop your work!
Finding your “why”
My final point – I promise.
At this stage, you may be wondering if creating performance aids is worth your time and sweat equity. You may also wonder why I have my learners and clients create them when I could easily provide performance aids I already have or could create on their behalf? The answer is in my own “why” and should be in yours too.
My “why” as an educator and consultant is to build capacity and for my students and clients to ultimately learn and develop on their own. Put simply, I am successful when I’m no longer needed. Guiding my learners through the processes of creating and using performance aids is where a lot of that magic happens. It’s in the creation of performance aids – the process itself – where capacity emerges. The person doing the creating is actually the one learning the most.
Be patient and trust the process. You’ll see how powerful this process is and the enormous benefits that come from your creations – your performance aids. By the way, one big bonus, beyond helping you perform, is that they can be shared with others (employers, admissions committees, your team, etc.) to showcase your who you are and what you know and can do!
Brod, G. (2020). Generative learning: Which strategies for what age? Educational Psychology Review. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09571-9
Business Design Corporation. (2014, July 28). The importance & value of the check list. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55Nc8nccPa0
Fiorella, L. & Mayer, R. (2016). Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educational Psychology Review, 28. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-015-9348-9
Gawande, A. (2012, March). How do we heal medicine? [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/atul_gawande_how_do_we_heal_medicine?language=en
Green, J. (n.d.). The power of checklists in the workplace. meister task. https://www.meistertask.com/blog/the-power-of-checklists/
Infographic. (2021, August 7). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infographic
The Teacher Tool Kit. (n.d.). Graphic Organizers. http://www.theteachertoolkit.com/index.php/tool/graphic-organizers
Vital, A. (2018, November 22). What is an infographic. adioma. https://blog.adioma.com/what-is-an-infographic/