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4 Ways to Transform Training Programs with Expert Mental Models

Nov 17, 2017 11:18:34 AM


How do we know what we know? It’s because we construct mental models that interrelate information in a sensible way, that we can test and refine with our experience. Learning requires that we assemble a new mental model, or integrate it into one we already have. These models can be completely wrong, flawed, suboptimal; or emulate the mental models of experts. Yikes! It seems we should care about mental models!

The mental models a learner constructs can directly impact the rate at which they achieve optimal performance, if at all. Let’s dive in...


We use mental models to predict the results of our actions, our decisions. As examples, Farnam Street provided 113 mental models one can use as a “toolbox to make good decisions.” In developing learning programs, we have the responsibility to guide how learners construct their models. If their mental model is flawed, their decisions will lead to unexpected results. Then the learner will need to revise their model until it leads to accurate predictions. So, it’s not surprising that skill acquisition can be a slow process.

Reasons for Poor Knowledge Transfer 

When developing a new skill, there are several reasons for poor decision-making, even when a learner has the requisite knowledge to perform optimally.

  • The learner could have developed a poor mental model during knowledge acquisition.
  • The learner’s mental model could be incomplete and lack the robustness to adjust to changes in real-world situations.
  • There may be insufficient opportunities to practice and refine their mental model. For example, a high-stakes situation may only come up rarely.

Think about this for a moment. These reasons represent the huge difference between knowing and doing; between acing a knowledge test, and actually performing in the field. This is where we can make a dramatic difference in improving performance through better skill acquisition.


4 Ways to Transform Training Programs with Expert Mental Models

If you want your trainees to become optimal performers faster, consider adding these four attributes to your training.

1. Start with Expert Models

This seems rather obvious, but is often neglected. If the learner is left to assemble the information themselves, they will construct their own mental model to apply in real situations. Extract mental models from your experts and provide examples of how experts make decisions in practical situations. This starts the learner on the right path to become competent faster.

2. Provide Practice in Realistic Situations

Don’t stop at the test. Give them realistic, practical situations so they can test their decisions and refine their models. The more practice, the faster they will develop accurate models and gain competence. Learn more about experiential learning here. 

3. Provide Expert Coaching

Trial and error is a long process to hone a skill. Expert coaching enables learners to recognize optimal decision patterns exponentially faster.  Learn more about applying Cognitive Apprenticeship here

4. Create a Variety of Realistic Situations

This variety improves the robustness of the learner’s model, so it works for them in fluid, real-world situations.  Learn more about applying Cognitive Flexibility here. 

These steps can help your learners perform better in the field faster, by taking advantage of mental models honed by experts. Incorporating expert mental models in training can improve knowledge transfer, elevate the performance of trainees, allowing them to ramp up faster, and provide a better chance for them to become top performers. 


 About Syandus: Virtual immersive learning technology that transforms knowledge into real-world performance. We immerse participants in realistic virtual situations with one-on-one expert coaching that gives them experience making optimal decisions. Syandus Learning Modules combine cognitive science principles, the realism of game technology, and our customer’s proprietary content, to deliver rapid skill acquisition. Modules are cloud-based for easy deployment, fully trackable with embedded analytics, and can be used on any web-enabled device.

Douglas Seifert, PhD

Written by Douglas Seifert, PhD

Doug leads a team at Syandus that combines cognitive science with virtual game technology to create rapid skill acquisition. The company has won several awards from the National Science Foundation’s Education Division.