M is for March, Mom, Medicine, and Microlearning

Hey, it's March already. How the heck did that happen? I wish I could say that time was flying because I was having fun, but the reality is that I was spending a few weeks with my elderly mother getting her used to the her new normal in terms of her health. But from that experience I want to share some things that helped me to help her but are also key elements of any successful learning program.

Don't throw everything at them at once

I know that medical professionals have a lot on their plates and many patients to see and some things they prescribe or suggest patients do seem very commonplace to them, but they need to remember that it may be completely new to the patient (or learner). And then there is the issue of how the individual processes the information. When lots of information is dumped on a patient they are less likely to follow all of it if it is one big lump. It would be like trying to eat an entire pizza in one bite. Too much all at once. And so it was with my mom. She had a number of different pieces of medical equipment to learn to use at home and was completely overwhelmed. So I did the following.

Understand the patient (or learner)

I don't just mean who are they, but how will they incorporate this new information and new activities into their routine. We quickly became aware that the portable oxygen tanks were heavy for my mom to carry along with her walker. And she was scared of them. Not a good combination. She was told that they were giving her supplemental oxygen in ways that it would be available 24 hours a day, even if the power went out. But from the discussions with the doctor is was clear that while it was preferable for her to be on the supplemental oxygen all of the time, she was not in any imminent danger as she had not been using oxygen up until now. I had to help her get into a frame of mind where she could process information about the other equipment which leads to the following.

Prioritize what they really need to know right now vs what you ultimately want them to know

Our goal, my mom and mine, was to let her return to living independently which would mean that she would need to understand how to use a nebulizer to take her asthma medication and how to operate the various types of supplemental oxygen equipment. I quickly made a list in my head of all the objectives and then starting prioritizing them. And I made sure I started with a really easy one. I had to get her to see that she could learn this. So the first lesson was just how to turn the oxygen concentrator on and off. That's it. Show her where the button was. Have her turn it off and on. And see which lights should be on and what level it should be set at. She did it and we had a small win to build on.

Scaffold the learning

From there we added new things each day. Little by little. If you need to experience this process in an easy and fun way, try almost any casual video game. They show you how to get started and level by level increase the difficulty and complexity of the actions and number of items you have to keep track of or have at your disposal. An oldie by goodie for this is Plants vs Zombies. You start with one type of plant and one type of zombie and work your way up to dozens of varieties that counteract each other most effectively. Again this goes back to don't lump it all together. Microlearning doesn't mean small in the amount of learning that is taking place overall, it simply acknowledges that we learn best by breaking things into chunks.

Let them struggle a little

Especially when you are dealing with loved ones who are sick, this one may be particularly tough but it is important as it is part of the learning process. I don't mean let them do something they physically can't do or let them do something that isn't safe, but you have to let people figure things out. If you always jump in quickly and take over or immediately give them the right answer if they come up with the wrong on, you are robbing them of a valuable piece of learning. In the struggle, the area between what we know and don't yet know, is the fertile ground of learning. Let them make mistakes and try again. One thing mom had to learn was how to take apart the nebulizer and clean it and then put it back together. It took a few tries to figure out which piece went which way, but in her experiencing it, rather than me just continually talking her through it, she gained more confidence and competence faster.

Be ready to let them learn more

Now I know my mother is the type who likes instructions to refer to so I was ready. Once she had gotten the basics I made two handouts. One went through the steps for using the nebulizer and the other was a checklist of things she needed to do throughout the day. Mom has been using a Fitbit to track her walking for the past couple of years so she is well versed in tracking her progress and keeping a log of her activities. This new list offered her a similar gameful experience. Let's see how many days we can check everything off of the list. I also made sure she had all of the manuals for the equipment. She can dig in more deeply or refresh her memory as she goes along.

Of course, these aren't the only important parts of creating good learning events but these are important elements. It took some time, but slowly mom got the hang of her new medical adventure. Now, how can you use the lessons in your next learning adventure?

(Image based on breathe by Mae Chevrette)