Paxman’s sexy prime numbers – how they can help you to make the key messages in your e-learning memorable

Sky is great, isn’t it? Recording your favourite programmes, watching them whenever you want… except it gets a bit complicated when you’ve got more than one University Challenge fan in the house (yes, really) and two fiercely competitive housemates.

Last weekend we watched a pre-recorded University Challenge episode. Both housemates were shouting out answers and the one who wasn’t doing so well accused the other of cheating. He decided she must have seen this one before (surely her general knowledge couldn’t match that of a panel of Oxbridge swots?), yet she was adamant she hadn’t.

Tensions rising, we carried on in this vein until two things happened:

  1. Jeremy Paxman asked a question about the size of African countries. “ETHIOPIA” I cried, and I was right.
  2. Jeremy asked a mathsy question, “SEXY PRIME THE ANSWER IS SEXY PRIME” I yelled, and again I was spot on.

I never know the answers to geography and maths questions. Never. And no, I hadn’t recently returned from a meditative retreat where I had succeeded in opening up new areas of my mind, allowing me to discover and harness never before accessed knowledge. I had seen this episode before.

But that wasn’t enough for me to remember the answers to all the questions, or even to have realised that I had seen the episode before until this happened. I remembered the answers, and realised I had seen it before, because:

  1. The first time I’d seen the show I had attempted to answer the African countries question and got it wrong, as had the University Challenger (pah!) and Paxman had then given us the right answer.
  2. First time round, I had found Paxman saying ‘sexy prime’ funny. I had chuckled.

The two lessons that I have taken from this sequence of events are:

  1. Immediate and corrective feedback works… test, and then tell.
    The questions you ask your learners should be drawn from the key messages you are trying to get across. And if your learners attempt to answer a question and are then given corrective feedback they are far more likely to remember this key message than if it’s just been ‘told’ to them.
  2. Making it funny makes it memorable.
    Remember the girl who in your class at school who did quite well in P.E? Probably not. Remember the girl who tripped her way onto the stage to collect a certificate? It’s more likely. If you’re going to try and achieve a light and humorous tone then decide this at the beginning of the instructional design process. Get as much information about your learners from your SMEs, for instance, what characterises them? Do they have examples of popular internal communications that they can show you? This will help you to build up a picture of your learners and help to gauge what they may find funny.

Who would have thought Jeremy Paxman and “Sexy Primes” could be related to learning outcomes

And so I outed my sly housemate’s cover and she later admitted she had seen that episode before. What are your thoughts? Do you have any similar anecdotes? If so, please comment below. Or if, like me, you find sexy primes amusing, check them out on wikipedia You’ll probably be disappointed, they’re not very funny.

About the author

Catherine Blanchard - Instructional designer
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