learning blog

How we Learn

I have been developing online learning (eLearning) modules for over 15 years and on the whole thought I have delivered some wonderful final products – and we have. However, when we truly consider the WHY behind developing the program in the first place, are we really achieving the goal; Learning, or just ticking a box “I have completed program X”?

Most online training programs are designed on the KISS principal. Keep it Simple Simple. These programs look great, are short and sweet and easy to digest.

Neuroscience is showing that in order to learn, to really learn (embed the learning, change habits and so forth), KISS wont do the trick. In order to impart knowledge in a meaningful way we need to rethink our approach when designing any form of learning.

Firstly science tells us that to learn (or form new neurological pathways) we need to stretch our thinking. In other words, it shouldn’t be easy. It should really challenge our thinking. In some way, should be uncomfortable (out of our comfort zone). Naturally, there is a pendulum and we don’t want to go too far, however for our brains to record something and be able to recall something, emotion needs to be part of the learning process.

Secondly spending 15-20 minutes learning something important in most cases simply isn’t enough. Too often I see compliance modules adhere to this model. Learning professionals just need to get the content out and knowing how busy people are, keep it short and sweet. Looking at the science of learning, we need multiple touch points to continually reinforce the new knowledge, or change the behaviors of someone. So the 15-20 minute course may well be a great starting point, but we should have other and ongoing activities to support the program, change habits and foster genuine learning.

Additionally we need to space the learning out. Consider cramming for an exam. We’ve all done it. We spends hours and sleepless nights prior to the exam and we do well – we pass! But 2-3 months on we struggle to recall the information. 12 months or more later – the data is fragmented at best. Cramming stores information in our short term memory. To store data in our long-term memory we need to allow time for our memories to form. We already mentioned the emotion component, now we are dealing with time. When we sleep or our brains are resting, the brain is processing and compartmentalising the data. Then we apply the multiple touch points to the equation and we are now looking at long term memory, recall – and learning..

A final point I would like to make is around the learning environment. All to often we are performing our learning in the workplace. Email notifications popping up, phone vibrating, people interrupting and so forth. Our brains are super computers but our cognitive part of the brain (executive functions – Pre-frontal Cortex) can only process a very small number of things before getting fatigued. In fact studies have shown that we drop 15 points of IQ temporarily when the phone vibrates. This might also be better explained by considering when you’ve come up with the magic solution to a complex problem. You spent all day (or many hours) pondering a solution but none was forthcoming… All of sudden you are relaxing, in the bathroom, showering or sleeping when the moment arrives!

Hence when you consider developing your next learning program (particularly one of importance), consider the following:

  • Does the content challenge (stretch) the participants thinking?
  • Have I spaced out the various learning activities?
  • How will we support the learning with ongoing or multiple touch points?
  • How can we make this learning relevant to our audience?
  • Can I create a better learning environment – limiting, reducing or eliminating distractions (where possible)?

Just ponder these thoughts when you are designing your next project and self check the results. You may be surprised. Thanks for reading.

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