Car Keys

Finding Your Keys and Online Training

We have all been there. You need to grab your keys in the bedroom so you head up the stairs. You walk through the door and….. “wait, what was I here for again?” It’s called the Doorway Effect and it’s why online training is so effective.

You’re probably thinking “What? How does poor memory tie into a Grow2Serve class?” Well it‘s not about memory, it’s about context. And online training beats the physical classroom for context every time.

You see our brains are amazingly efficient. Your brain is constantly capturing and applying information. You watched Beauty and the Beast three days ago and now you’re pretty sure that Italian guy is hitting on the lady he is sitting next to. Why? Because the movie let you know that Belle’s “…name means beauty…” and now this guy is making eyes and using the word “belle” every other sentence. You picked up a bit of info, stored it, and applied it to make sense of a situation going on in front of you; all without having to consciously think about it. If you already knew where I was going with that example then you know firsthand how crazy good are brains are at this stuff.

This amazing capacity for learning must be managed, though. Imagine if every time you were asked a question your brain divulged every bit of information it had on file. But here too our brains are amazing. It filters through the information you know and finds the piece you need now. Here is where the Doorway Effect comes in.

To ease and speed the process of finding info our brain creates shortcuts. It groups and associates information. This is why when you are in the middle of talking about the game last night you can remember the score quickly but if asked out of the blue you won’t be able to remember. In the context of your sports conversation that information was important and currently relevant but in your day to day that information is less pressing. Hence the Doorway Effect. Your brain understood the importance of the keys when you were downstairs but now you left that room, you’re in a different context, so your brain put that need on the backburner.

Missionaries often suffer a parody of the Doorway Effect when they go overseas. They received helpful training and resources back at the home office, but now they’re in Cambodia and struggling to remember “observe without judgement.” Their brains could take in the information and apply it in a classroom setting but it was never connected to any other context.

The same is true even after they have been in the country. Just like with the Doorway Effect, they know the information gaps and their urgent questions in the context of the field but now they’re in a refresher training classroom and that information is placed on the backburner. Unless the missionary is able simultaneously to occupy both contexts, the disconnect will be an obstacle.

Thankfully they can. With online training context becomes a strength not a weakness. A lesson learned can be applied the next day, or even hour, so context disconnect doesn’t happen. Urgent questions don’t have to be remembered through change in context and over travel time; they can be asked immediately. In fact, with online training, lessons can be incorporate into their actual job; no simulations or semi-connected examples required. The real life context drives the training rather than training being stretched to uncomfortably fit context. To stick with our analogy it’s as if you think about needing the keys and somebody gives them to you in the room you are already in. You don’t walk through any doors (leave the Field) so the Doorway Effect (context disconnect) never happens.     

Daniel Morgenstern is the director of youth and small group ministries at Restoration Covenant Church in Apple Valley, MN and proudly serves as a Sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard. In all his work, he relies on his background as a Missionary Kid who spent the first 12 years of his life in Ukraine.


  1. Mark Wenger

    An excellent observation, Daniel. Thanks for sharing.

    I’m curious to know what you think about the way in which classroom learning and online learning can maximize to greatest effect the benefits of both. (I know, I’m asking a leading question, since Grow2Serve is all about this idea, working with CIT, but this is a leading idea, and I want to hear more about these thoughts, publicly.

  2. Grow2Serve

    Thanks for the encouraging response, Mark. Classroom and online learning can capitalize on this idea in 2 ways. First we can construct our more formalized learnings in a way that we realize is not going to bring immediate change, but is going to set individuals up for those moments when the learning will return to mind at the moment of need. The more we can present case studies and problem-solving as a group with real-life types of situations, the more our brain will store the ideas in more practice-oriented locations for future access.

    A second good practice is to provide stretch assignments that send the learner out into real-world application of a concept almost immediately. Then following that up with debriefing as a group (in a classroom or online) provides multiply attachment point opportunities that key the concept or the principle into being connected to real-life in more powerful ways.

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