Teaching to the Test

Learning “technology” is both a new and ancient field. New, because it is only in the last few decades that instructional techniques have been dissected and catalogued by education specialists (some more and some less successful). Ancient, because our ancestors have always had to teach their children how to do it to get along in the world. If you don’t believe that, find a field far from your home, take nothing with you, and try to live for a year or two. You can’t do it—unless you are trained to do it. Our ancestors gave this training to their children.

The technique they used is known as situated learning, or in-context learning, or on-the-job training. There was no body of knowledge that was separate from the job. You learned farming in the field. You learned food preparation by the hearth. Children worked with their parents.

This type of learning still exists today. You find it in the home. Few people learn to clean the toilet by taking a class. You find a similar process in trade apprenticeships, but it’s not the parent that does the teaching. It is a mentor. My brothers-in-law learned plumbing this way.

My uncle learned to be an attorney by being an apprentice. They called it “reading the law,” but it was much more than reading. He never graduated college, but he had a successful attorney as a mentor. He would be close to 100 years old now, so his training occurred before World War II.

By the time I went to law school, this option was no longer open. I attended law school for three years. I thought I was learning the law, but I was really being prepared to do two things: do legal research and pass the bar exam. This was not some fly-by-night law school. This is the way things were done (and the way they are still done). After three years of exam preparation, there was concern that you might not remember it all (or that you missed learning a few points), so you took a bar review course shortly before you took the bar exam.

Shortly after getting my license I attended a friendly orientation meeting called something like “Now that you passed the bar, here’s what you need to know to practice law.” The apprenticeship begins after you pass the bar! It’s the same with doctors and other so-called professions.

Financial service training pretty much skips the apprenticeship and the years of school and goes right to the exam review course. But what is it that you are reviewing? You are reading about insurance or securities for the first time in your review course. You need to learn the material and prep for the exam all in a week or so.

Talk about cognitive load!

Oh, I didn’t talk about cognitive load. Cognitive load is a principle that says that your brain can process only so much material at a time. Today, you might call this bandwidth. Apprenticeships manage cognitive load by teaching the apprentice a little bit at a time in context. Context helps. Law schools and medical schools manage cognitive load somewhat in the same way, so when you come to the exam review course, you’ve learned most of the material already. Having some pre-knowledge really helps. In financial services, we just try to cram it down your throat and expect you to remember it all.

Can a course like that really teach you about an industry that is new to you? Of course not. At best it is a rote exercise designed to get you to answer a set of questions correctly so you get your license.

Does the knowledge persist? Well, it doesn’t go away entirely, but there’s little in pre-licensing “education” that prepares you for the work you are going to do.

Advertisements

Boomers Retiring Earlier . . . I Mean, Later . . .

As Baby Boomers age, stories in the financial press (and the mainstream press) are beginning to shift from “Boomers Retiring Early!” to “Boomers Retiring Late!” There are even stories saying that “Boomers Are Secretly Retired!” Or “Secretly Unemployed!” Whatever!

Of course, it’s all happening. There are tens of millions of us (76 million born between 1945 and 1964 and a large majority of us are still around). In a group this size you’re bound to find early retirees, late retirees, and secret retirees. We didn’t all go to Vietnam. We didn’t all burn our bras (not even 50% of us). We didn’t all do drugs. Sex and rock-and-roll were probably pretty widespread, but not universal.

And not only are we individuals, we live in a time of increased life spans. When we were born in the mid-twentieth century, life expectancy was just creeping out of the 60s! We forget that, at least 10 years have been added during our lifetimes.

Our grandparents had very few years of retirement, on average. Early or late, it wasn’t a big difference. Today, a boomer could be looking at 20 years of retirement (that’s the approximate average) or even 30 years (not too much of a stretch).

And as our lives have been stretched out, so have our life milestones. We married later. We had kids later. We put kids through college later. And these life milestones have become more expensive (college, medical, etc.) All these changes have increased the variability in boomer life experience.

Policy-makers and actuaries may look at the averages, but financial planning professionals look at the individual. The boomers are all individuals. Every single one of them.

Learning Lots of Long Lists

I have a rule of thumb: if I have to remember a list of items that’s longer than three items, I have to write it down. Otherwise, I will always forget one of the items. It’s my N-minus-1 rule. If the list is N items long, I will remember N-1 of them. I discovered this rule running to the grocery store for my wife. Now, when she asks me to pick up a few items, I always ask how many items she wants. If it’s more than three, I write it down.

Insurance education has lots of lists: lists of things that are covered, lists of exclusions—you get the picture.

I didn’t realize this when I first got into the insurance education business because my area was life insurance. Here’s the list for life insurance:

  • Dead—covered
  • Undead—not covered

Two items. I can handle that one. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but the life insurance list isn’t in the same league as health insurance, with its lists of procedures, or property-casualty insurance, with its lists of perils and hazards and risks—oh my!

Pure lists are hard to teach because, if the typical learner is anything like me, their brains operate on the N-minus-1 rule. And more often than not the forgotten 1 is the item they need to know.

In designing a learning experience, then, you have to decide exactly what it is you want to teach people. Here are some possibilities:

  • Instead of teaching people to recite a list, you might want to give them the list to take away with them (remember my grocery list)—then teach them how to use the list.
  • You might want to teach items on the list the learner might encounter with some frequency: property-casualty producers might have a greater need to understand the coverages and exclusions relating to employee dishonesty than they need to understand the exclusion for nuclear war.
  • You might want to teach why things are on a list: cosmetic surgery is on the list of exclusions because cosmetic surgery is normally elective, whereas an appendectomy is not.
  • Instead of pure memorization, you might have activities requiring the learner to sort items into “piles”: covered versus excluded. You can get really fancy and have a secondary sort of the excluded pile into exclusions that you can buy separate coverage for (like flood insurance) and exclusions that you can’t (like for war).

 

Handling the Math

People have a hard time with math. Even people who write about it.

Take a recent article in Slate called “Obamacare and the ‘Young Invincibles,’” that purports to evaluate the recent enrollment figure under the Affordable Care Act. This article is not written by an Obamacare basher, and yet the author’s failure to do the math possibly paints a more negative picture than warranted.

It all has to do with the health insurance enrollments of young people in the age 18-34 bracket.

Enrollment of young people is important because young people tend to avoid buying health insurance, but they are needed in the risk pool to balance off people of my age. The ideal risk pool has full representation from all ages.

The article says that 40 percent of the uninsured in this country were in this age bracket. Final enrollment figures say that 28 percent of those who enrolled were in this age bracket, far short of the 40 percent.

Is 28 percent good enough?

The article says that there is no benchmark because underwriting information is unavailable from the insurance companies. But it does compare the figure to the initial enrollment figure when the similar Massachusetts program was first launched. The figure for that age group in Massachusetts was 28.3 percent. The Massachusetts program went on to be a success.

Is the national figure of 28 percent comparable to the Massachusetts 28.3?

The article correctly states that it depends on how the enrollments break down by state. Some states encouraged enrollment, some states discouraged it. Some states made Medicaid available, some did not.

Another factor to be considered is the fact that, under Obamacare, young adults up to age 26 may now be included in their parents’ employer-provided health insurance. The article doesn’t account for these young adults. They would not have enrolled through the health exchanges and would, therefore, not be part of the 28 percent. The question is: were they or were they not counted as part of the 40 percent who were uninsured.

Unless we know about these young adults, how can we even come up with a figure? We can’t. The figure could be 28 percent or it could be more. Health exchanges were not the only avenue for young adult enrollment. You have to account for them all.

An Exam You Can’t Prepare For?

I was just listening to a story on NPR about the new SAT exam that will be given to high school kids starting in 2016. In the story, I learned that the changes are designed to minimize the effect of test-prep courses.

What does this have to do with financial education?

A good deal of financial education is designed to get the learner to pass an exam. It may be a licensing exam or it may be an exam given at the conclusion of a continuing education course. Techniques that help teenagers pass a college entrance exam are just as valid when applied to exams taken later in life.

The question then is whether it is really possible to create an exam that you can’t prepare for? The College Board says yes, but they have been saying that for more than 50 years. Yet the test-prep business flourishes. Why? Because people who prepare for a test do better than those who don’t. And there really isn’t a way to write a test that eliminates the value of preparing.

And why would you want to do that?

Playing an instrument takes practice. Playing a sport takes practice. Would you ever want to design a piece of music or a sport in which practice offers no hope of improvement? Don’t kids who take SAT test-prep gain from what they learn in those courses, apart for the improved SAT scores?

In Every Generation . . .

If you’re interested in education, you could spend a few profitable hours analyzing the liturgy for the Passover Seder (feast). We like to think that instructional design is a new and scientific “thing.” But many of the techniques we are “discovering” are a few thousand years old.

The Passover Seder, which is celebrated tonight, is built around a set of four interactive questions, which are answered several times throughout the ceremony in different ways. Although the central lesson of the Seder has to do with remembering the freeing of the Israelite slaves in Egypt more than four thousand years ago, none of the four questions explicitly addresses that learning objective.

Instead, each question refers to a metaphor for learning retrieval. The first question asks the reason for eating the unleavened bread (matzah), which is described as the “bread of affliction.” The second question asks the reason for eating the bitter herb, which causes the learner to reflect on the bitterness of slavery. The third and the four questions refer to other ceremonial acts that cause the learner to reflect about redemption and freedom.

The Seder is also explicitly aware that people possess different learning styles. We read about four types of children—the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask—and are given different formulas for reaching each of them

And there is much more.

The fact is that human beings are a learning species. Learning is age old, not new. It is in our genes to do this and we do it well, so long as we are clear and simple and engaging.

Happy Passover to all my Jewish friends.

Unreality of State-Mandated Continuing Education

State insurance regulators take a dim view of sales training. There’s no continuing education (CE) credit for that. But this misses a key principle of androgogy (adult learning): adults need to be motivated. They need to know that there will be a payoff if they invest time and mental effort. When state regulators nix content that seem too sales-y, they are nixing the motivation that could drive learning. Without this motivation, agents are just putting in the time to get their license renewal. They take the easiest courses and learn very little.

Of course, it’s not that black and white. There’s certainly a spectrum of learners. Many people in the field lap up learning, spending way more time than CE rules would require. I’ve done it myself and gotten rewarded with a variety of advanced designations—and with knowledge.

I do sympathize with regulators, though. If you are going to require regular education, you have to require something with a minimum level of meatiness. I just think they go a little too far.

As a writer of continuing education courses, I want to set my concepts in a world that has a reality that is recognizable to the learner. The real world is a world of sales. When we remove that, we need at least to ask the learner to reflect on customer needs and suitability of solutions we offer to meet those needs. It’s not sales per-se, but it’s close (needs and suitability are components of many effective sales strategies). And it puts an ethical slant on the material that usually pleases the regulators.