The Science Behind the Learning Process
Neuroscience - the study of the nervous system - integrates biology, chemistry and physics with studies of structure, physiology and behavior, and can have a significant impact on learning strategy. By understanding how people learn, including the factors that limit or enhance their ability to acquire and retain knowledge, organizations can efficiently tailor learning and development programs to align with business objectives.
People bring their own backgrounds and knowledge to every new learning opportunity. Essentially, the brain develops neural networks that embed and store information. Connections between neurons form for everything an individual pays attention to, and they physiologically change as the brain acquires new information and perceptions. This is how people learn. For example, participating in or observing a presentation may influence an individual's future presentation style.
Memory is a required component of learning. When people pay attention, memories form through a three-part process for information encoding, storage and retrieval. These neural connections are reinforced by the neurotransmitter dopamine, the brain's reward chemical, which is released during each repetition of thought that positively reinforces behavior. This response embeds learning. Failure to learn can be the result of deficiencies in any of the three stages of the memory process.
As organizations seek to effectively educate employees, a holistic approach recognizes that the brain interacts not only with incoming information, but within the entire context in which it is presented. Therefore, learning leaders should consider the physical, emotional and cognitive elements of the environment where learning takes place.
The volume of information people are exposed to also creates challenges in the brain's ability to process and recall information. Content should be presented at a level that is challenging, but within the audience's capability to understand. Learning is a resource-hungry activity, and there are limits to the brain's ability to digest and store new material. It may sound rudimentary, but sleep is a crucial factor to aid learning. Neurons activated during learning are reactivated during slow-wave sleep.
An optimized learning environment should address physiological needs by ensuring adequate food and water are available and that light, temperature and ventilation are at appropriate levels. It is also essential to address the emotional aspect of learning. Emotion regulates where people place their attention, and emotional cues linked to learning content forge a deeper and richer neural pathway than fact-based content alone. Where there is insufficient concentration, neural networks fail to form adequately.
According to Knud Illeris, a Danish scientist and professor of lifelong learning at the Danish University of Education in Copenhagen, self-directed learning is highly effective, and when done in a purposeful manner, the learner is more likely to retain the information. Motivation is also important. Without an intrinsic incentive to learn, the dopamine reward mechanisms that reinforce learning fail to be activated.
Further, despite the popularity and practicality of e-learning, learning that takes place through direct experiences or observation of others remains crucial. Formal classroom instruction enables people to test and validate thinking, and providing a supportive environment where failure is an accepted part of the experience helps foster learning.
A traditional model for learning is the 70-20-10 rule, which suggests that 70 percent of learning should occur informally and on the job, 20 percent is the result of observing others and 10 percent is formal training. Another popular model for learning, AGES, was developed in 2010 by Lila Davachi, associate professor of psychology at New York University. This model highlights four criteria necessary for effective learning:
Focus on a single area of interesting and relevant material when designing programs.
People can generate their own thinking through direct interaction.
Employees are more apt to learn based on emotional cues associated with the learning task.
Content should be spread across days for optimal learning and retention.
With a deeper knowledge of how humans learn, learning leaders can design programs based on scientific theory that tap the brain's learning capabilities and drive desired learning results.
[About the Author: Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith is general manager, integrated talent management at PageUp People.]