Welcome to “Mind Over Matter,” Chief Learning Officer’s new blog that focuses on the psychology and neurology behind learning. Check back for weekly updates on the scientific hows and whys behind what learning leaders do and how employees respond. Better learning through science, right?
In college, I was queen of the “study break,” which usually consisted of a small snack and three hours of intermittent napping and internet surfing. Deep down in the responsible part of my brain, I knew I was procrastinating on studying for that final or writing that paper — but even deeper down, I knew that snoozing while reading trivia about Breaking Bad was doing more for my cognitive abilities than keeping me ahead of everyone in the ranks of Most Sleep/Useless Knowledge.
Finally, science has confirmed my intuition.
The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Learning and Memory published a study on October 20 showing that if given time to rest, the brain has a better time connecting what it already knows from a previous experience to better absorb what’s being taught in the present moment. This improves the way it absorbs and retains information.
Sure, it’s easy to say we all know that taking little mental breaks help when learning. Focus is key to doing pretty much anything well, but it also has a variable expiration date.
The researchers showed participants associations — for example, a picture of Brad Pitt and a picture of a candle — before putting them into brain scanners and telling them to think about whatever they wanted. Using a new scanning system, Preston and her team were able to monitor who was thinking about the pictures and who was thinking about other things.
When asked to learn a new group of associations, such as a candle and a basketball, those who had been thinking about Pitt and the candle during their rest time were able to absorb the new information better.
“(The object pairing) seems like a silly paradigm, but it shows how pre-existing knowledge impacts how we learn about new things,” said Alison Preston, the associate professor who led the research and co-authored the report, “Memory Reactivation During Rest Supports Upcoming Learning of Related Content.”
The research showed resting can mean anything, from ruminating on the information to my old standby of napping. That old adage to “sleep on it” is more than a piece of advice from mothers and mentors who don’t know what else to say. A good night’s rest can indeed improve the next day’s learning.
For learning leaders, this means scheduling a learning event to span a day or two with breaks in between is your best bet to make sure employees grasp what they’re learning. Try having a session in the afternoon of one day and the morning of the next — it will take up the same amount of time, but participants will be more attentive for part two than they would be if thrust into it straight from part one. They’ll also have an easier time connecting the first day’s lessons to those on the second. The study also showed the best way for learners to find these connections between what they learned before a period of rest and what they learn afterward is through their own volition.
It’s easy to sit back and say that everything a learning leader teaches relates back to things employees should already have at the top of their minds — i.e., their job description and duties — but sometimes mental probing with the right kind of question can increase how much employees think about stuff they’ve rested on in correlation with what they’re about to learn.
“There’s a lot that goes on in your brain you might not be aware of, and it has a lot of impact on your learning ability,” Preston said.