The neuroscience of learning
How to make workplace learning and training stick
|4 minute read|
When it comes to learning, there is never an endpoint to when an employee and organisation have learnt all they can.
Learning and training do not finish when an individual enters employment. With the ever-changing technology-led landscape many organisations find themselves in, learning models have been upgraded to fit their environment.
The NeuroLeadership Institute has developed one such model called AGES, which is designed to embed new learning in staff in a way that ensures it will be retained.
In 2014, the institute published the study, The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model, which looks at factors that can lead to improvement in learning and development in the workplace.
This includes the four main principles of:
1. A (Attention) – sufficient attention must be given to the new material being learnt
2. G (Generation) – learners must generate connections to the knowledge they already have
3. E (Emotion) – moderate level of emotions are necessary
4. S (Spacing) – there must be regular intervals and spacing between learning and revising information.
According to AIM WA Chief Learning and Development Officer Shaun Ridley, AGES, which has been introduced to organisations since 2014, can be applied to almost any business.
“It is a broad and generic model that can apply in practically any workplace intending to put its staff through learning programs,” he said.
The study presented three facts about the relationship between attention and learning that proved crucial to the retention of education.
Firstly, attention has a limit of about 20 minutes before the participant will need a refresher. If a vast amount of information is condensed into a 30-minute or more block, even for efficiency’s sake, it reduces the likelihood of the participant properly grasping the new lessons being taught.
Secondly, multi-tasking is the enemy of learning, because one’s focus is divided between two or more tasks, which results in a significant amount of attention loss and hinders recall ability.
Thirdly, attention is especially susceptible to interference with materials such as reading language and hearing language. If a participant is reading a document while the teacher speaks at the same time, it is a significant struggle to concentrate on both simultaneously, as taking in each stream of information requires language processing.
Dr Ridley said a practical way for organisations to boost the effectiveness of learning and development was by allowing employees to fully embrace the training and not pull their attention away.
“Very often, we have participants come through training courses and they are constantly responding to emails or phone calls from their workplace,” he said.
“Employees need to be able to focus and organisations should avoid interrupting while the block of training is being carried out.”
While the NeuroLeadership Institute believes multi-tasking is detrimental to effective learning, Dr Ridley said the bigger peril was switching between mindsets, rather than just tasks.
“Multi-tasking isn’t the problem – it’s the switching from focusing on learning to focusing on work, and then back again, which takes away from both activities,” he said.
In addition, this switching activity causes considerable mental fatigue, further reducing performance.
According to the study, generation relates to the act of creating and sharing an employee’s own connections to new ideas and knowledge.
If one takes the time and effort to independently find answers, rather than waiting for answers to be offered, memory retention is improved.
Dr Ridley agreed, saying generation looks at how new learning connects with previous education that has been delivered in the workplace.
“Rather than an employee going on a one-day training course and that being the end of it, the new information may fit in as part of a bigger model, where the employee takes part in job rotations or special projects in their workplace with a mentor or coach providing support,” he said.
The study stated levels of emotions mattered when making learning stick, and positive emotions were significantly more effective than negative ones in doing so.
Strong emotions, whether negative or positive, tend to be a distracting force, however positive emotions have more leeway and have been shown to aid creativity and insight, as well as expand perception – all of which prove beneficial to learning.
The study recommends freeing the learner of emotional distractions, as well as teaching different methods of emotional regulation such as identifying and labelling an emotional distraction in order to clear it away, along with reappraisal, which means changing one’s interpretation of a certain situation.
Allowing for space between learning new material and revisiting it is possibly the most essential of the AGES learning principles, according to the study.
While cramming material can be effective for short-term goals, such as tests, it is largely ineffective if the aim is long-lasting retention.
Spacing out learning sessions is a far better option, allowing for sleep to assist with integrating new information into pre-existing knowledge, creating and strengthening stable memories, as well as discarding irrelevant information.
Dr Ridley said the evolving online learning space, where training is now more regularly taking place, helps to support this aspect of AGES.
“The online learning environment has enabled this kind of spacing model to come to the fore because people can drop in and out of learning over an extended period of time,” he said.
“If people aren’t doing it in a disciplined way, they may lose some focus, but the online space is offering more flexibility.”