Using Brain Science to Improve Employee Learning

Experts in brain science fields such as psychology, neurology, molecular biology, and behavioral science have a lot to tell us about how to make information stick to our grey matter longer and more effectively.

Americans want to learn. According to Pew Research, 73 percent of Americans see themselves as “lifelong learners,” and 74 percent of adults consider themselves “personal learners”—people who have participated in a learning activity within the last 12 months. And approximately 63 percent of workers have engaged in professional learning—something businesses spend $130 billion on every year, worldwide.

Even more impressive are the reasons people want to learn. According to Pew, Americans want to keep learning because they want to live rich, full lives. Because they want to help others. Because they want to improve their skills. These are all great reasons to learn, and all the more reason to make sure people retain what they learn.

Unfortunately, learning retention is a challenge. According to the American Society of Training and Development, 90 percent of new skills disappear within a year. It turns out your mom was right: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

This is where brain science rides to the rescue of companies that want to make sure their training efforts are paying dividends.

To be clear, when we’re talking about “brain science,” we’re actually talking about several interrelated disciplines—such as psychology, neurology, molecular biology, and behavioral science—that are focused on the brain. Experts in these fields have a lot to tell us about how to make information stick to our grey matter longer and more effectively.

Make Learning Fun

The theory is that creative application makes learning fun, and fun is what makes information stick. The trick is turning everyday information into something that lights up our brains. There are several ways educators can do this:

Situated learning, the idea that we learn best when we learn and apply knowledge in the same context, can help us retain lessons for longer. For example, a chef learns best in a kitchen because that’s where the learning will be applied. For corporate educators, this translates to immersive learning experiences—such as storyline-driven games, simulations, or other opportunities to practice a skill or decision-making in context. These will give employees that “aha!” moment and a reflective learning experience without risk of failure on the job.

Peer learning, where students learn from someone slightly more experienced than they are, can help improve retention because the learning relationship is more informal. Peer learning can be achieved by pairing students up online or in-person if possible. Group opportunities—such as assignments or exercises—can drive up participation in discussions, and help retention.

Educators can also use mind-wandering to their advantage. Studies have shown that we lose focus and attention on a task after about 10 minutes. Delivering lessons in 10-minute chunks and then shifting to another kind of learning style or content encourages creativity and problem solving. One way to do that is to switch back and forth between reading materials, discussion points, low-stakes quizzes, and audio-video feedback. This will help encourage better retention when compared to a long, unbroken lecture, for instance.

Similarly, the notion of interleave learning takes advantage of the fact that our brains enjoy contrast and stimulation. An example might be switching between free throws, lay-ups, and jump shots for basketball players rather than doing one shot repetitively. In a corporate learning environment, one might switch to game-based learning midway through a lesson to interleave learning concepts.

The theory of generative learning is based on the notion that creating something new with new information helps improve retention. An example of this might be to create a video after learning a new concept. If students are encouraged to think about ways to creatively apply new concepts, those same concepts suddenly become much more interesting, and move to long-term memory.

Another concept that’s useful for building retention is retrieval learning, which trains the brain to find and retrieve stored information. The notion of testing—asking students to recall a fact long after learning it—is the most obvious example of this. Retrieval learning can be open book (or open computer) testing or creating mind maps of information. However, high-stakes summative tests don’t provide the best platform for retrieval because the anxiety of needing to recall can get in the way of retrieving the information for some students.

Finally, there’s synthesis. Synthesized learning is something we all do, all the time. If you’ve asked several friends what they thought of a movie, you’re engaging in synthesis. Any time we try to reconcile more than one viewpoint, or put two different concepts together, we’re synthesizing. A classic educational example: the essay question on a test. However, the same effect can be achieved in discussions or debates, online chats, or any other environment where an educator can introduce an element of conflict or contrast between two or more concepts or ask people to bring concepts together. Doing so will reinforce the connections and the concepts in long-term memory.

Case Study

The American Nurses Association (ANA) is one group that has been tapping into these techniques to deliver better learning experiences for members.

“Health-care is a constantly changing industry,” says Terry Gaffney, vice president of Product Development for the ANA. “We are continually evolving, streamlining, and improving patient care. However, only 57 percent of nurses today feel engaged in their work.”

To engage nurses, the ANA is helping them gain knowledge and skills. The ANA offers pre-course work tied to a learner’s experience and social networks. This helps them understand how the course will be relevant and identifies learning gaps.

Using discussion boards, learners across the country can connect with peers, instructors, and coaches, giving members a sense of connectedness. Content comes in short bursts, and a quiz tool gives immediate feedback. To help learners deepen their knowledge on a particular topic, ANA also provides access to videos, articles, and Web pages.

These and other exciting advancements in brain science can give corporate educators new tools to help learners retain information longer, and help ensure that investing in learning pays off for the company—and the worker—in the long run.

As a Product Management director for D2L, Koreen Pagano is passionate about technology for organizational learning, with an emphasis on performance improvement and behavior change. Her roots are in education, having received her MS in Curriculum and Instruction from Penn State University. After starting her career as a teacher and corporate instructional designer, in 2008, Pagano founded Tandem Learning, where she pioneered immersive learning in organizations by leveraging virtual worlds, games, and simulations. As director, Enterprise Product at and LinkedIn, Pagano led the product vision for self-directed learning for corporate, government, and educational institutions. A writer, speaker, and organizational consultant, Pagano works with organizations to drive meaningful change through learning. She has taught graduate courses at Harrisburg University and is author of the blog, Learning in Tandem, and the book, “Immersive Learning.”

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