Learning and Development:  It’s not Rocket Science, It’s Brain Science

By Emerson Director, Learning and Development, Freddy Mitchell

Drawing of brain on a chalkboard

We’ve all read the research on the modern learner – make it more modular, gamify it, or make it mobile. But don’t let these trends distract you. Here are a few common signs you need to re-focus on the basic elements of good learning and changing human behavior.

  1. You deploy leadership training, but survey results show no one participated.

    What are your learners comparing it to? What is their frame of reference for his content? Adult learners anchor what they are hearing or seeing to what they have seen or heard before. If you don’t anchor it, they will! Try branding the program differently or compare it to an experience that has given them great skills or insights. Learners will connect your training to those anchors and begin to see the learning as more purposeful.

  2. Your training falls flat and survey results show a negative learning experience.

    How did the session start? How did it end? What highs and lows did you build into the session? Take a hard look at those and you might start to understand participants’ feedback. Ever go on vacation and, when you tell a friend about it, all you can remember are the most spectacular sights or the travel disasters? Our brains are hard-wired to focus on the highs and lows, or peak ends, of any experience. Orchestrate those highs and lows. For example, begin with an engaging ice breaker (high), followed by a challenging discussion (low), and then an activity that gets people on their feet and talking to each other. Tip: Do you want to ensure those evaluations come in more positive? End on a high note your learners will remember when they do their review.

  3. Your systems training is launched, but users report many issues as they try to use the system on the job.

    Research shows we feel the pain of loss much more acutely than the pleasure of gain. That’s why we stay in jobs longer than we should or in relationships long after they’ve fizzled. It’s called Loss Aversion and the loss of systems is no different. For some users, the old system was fine, and it was comforting and affirming to know exactly how to do the job well each day. For those users, the new system is painful; they don’t know it all anymore. They don’t know how to find information, complete daily tasks, or speed through those processes. They are grieving that feeling of safety and confidence. You can fix this by identifying the real pain points. What is the pain of not changing systems? What are the consequences of the aging or inadequate system – consequences learners might not be thinking of? If we don’t change, information might be more and more outdated or irrelevant. Maybe competitors will take our share of the market or our customers will have a bad experience and leave. Find out what this change is really about and build that into training. Help your learners imagine the pain in not changing to a new system.

  4. Compliance training leaves your audience “glazed over.”

    Have you ever conducted training face-to-face and sense that your audience is less than thrilled? Sometimes the content itself is hard to make fun and exciting. But you can find ways to add some spice to your training. One way: give learners some control. Humans like predictability and influence on things that affect them. For example, if you were to become ill, you would want to help determine the treatment plan and understand your prognosis. Faced with uncertainty, we seek control. When you’re designing training, (even compliance training!) look for ways to give learners control. For example, use advanced organizers so they can see the content at a glance. Let them describe their learning goals and track progress themselves. Give them electives to choose from. Or let them choose the order in which they take courses. Give as much control as possible and learners will engage and feel a sense of accomplishment.

  5. Learners are not up to date on the latest tax curriculum.

    You’ve built the course, your learners have taken it, but you’re still seeing performance problems on the job. The text-heavy content might be your problem. Studies have shown our brains are triggered more easily by visual images; in fact, we can remember over 2,000 images with 90% accuracy, even after 90 days. That’s huge! So, while some might say there are distinct learning styles or preferred learning methods, we know the brain loves visualization. Use that to increase retention. Make content more visual and your learners will recall more than they would by looking only at text-heavy slides.

  6. Your accounting department is having a hard time learning the new business process.

    Chances are, any new accounting process is complex and has many exceptions to the norm. That’s a big hill for your learners to climb. Help them out by engineering success and building momentum. We all need small wins to keep ourselves going when the going gets tough. For example, when we diet, we like to see that our work is making a difference – the needle on the scale is inching downward. The day we stop seeing results, we become discouraged or demotivated. Learners are no different. They need to see that their effort is connected to results and progress toward the goal. Start with simple tasks that ensure small wins, then build in bigger achievements for more complex or challenging tasks. Momentum is movement that takes on a life of its own and escalates – soon your learners will be on a sure path to success on the job.

This Isn’t Rocket Science, It’s Brain Science

All of these tips are founded in scientific research about human behavior and the brain. So, while learning trends and societal shifts won’t stop, we know a few facts about the human behavior that transcend the trend. Use these techniques to really give your training the wow it needs!

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