Most corporate learning programs are designed to be popular. They are optimized to earn high ratings from participants during end-of-course assessments with little regard to how much they actually improve performance or change behavior. When organizations track metrics at all, they tend to focus not on how well participants remember what they learn, but on net promoter score — essentially a measure of how enjoyable the learning program is.
But just because a learning program is fun doesn’t necessarily mean it’s effective. Too often after a learning program, employees return to work only to quickly forget most of what they’ve learned. In one audit of a client’s learning strategy, the NeuroLeadership Institute found that a training that employees rated as highly satisfying utterly failed to meet its objectives: When we surveyed participants, not one could recall any of the models or skills taught.
The reality is that program participation, course completion and net promoter scores are not necessarily indicative of behavior change. Unless participants can remember what they learn, training programs are useless.
Luckily, neuroscientists actually know a great deal about how to make new learning stick. The key is something called “hippocampal activation.”
The brain learns best when an experience engages the hippocampus, a region of the brain that’s active when new information is embedded into long-term memory. The greater the degree of hippocampal activation, the more durably learning is encoded.
Research has found that the hippocampus activates when four conditions are met: attention, generation, emotion and spacing — a framework that the NeuroLeadership Institute calls the AGES Model.
For optimal retention, participants of a learning program must pay sufficient attention to what they’re learning. The more focused attention is, the better participants remember what they learn.
What this means is that people learn best when they have a single point of focus, placing all their attention on what they’re learning. Attention, in other words, should not be divided.
This also means that multitasking is the archenemy of learning. The word itself is misleading, since studies reveal that in reality, multitasking involves not simultaneous processing, but rapid switching between tasks. Every time you refocus your attention from one task to another, you incur a penalty in performance — and studies have consistently shown that multitasking interferes with the formation of new memories.
Studies also show that the brain tends to lose focus after about 20 minutes. That’s because paying attention to just one thing requires you to inhibit the impulse to direct your attention to distractions. Unfortunately, the act of inhibition relies on the brain’s braking system — the prefrontal cortex, a region that tires easily.
So, what’s the solution? Learners should not be asked to pay attention to any one thing for longer than 15 or 20 minutes. Rather, after 20 minutes of sustained attention, trainers should either give learners a break to allow the prefrontal cortex time to recharge or switch tasks, giving learners the opportunity to reflect, ask questions, discuss or do a classroom exercise.
Generation is the process of creating your own connections to new ideas. Studies show that people learn best when, instead of listening passively, they take the time to map what they’re learning onto their existing knowledge, connecting new ideas to what they already know. When you connect new information with your own thoughts, experiences and prior knowledge, you create a rich network of associations that enhance recall by linking new information to memories already encoded in the brain. The takeaway is that learners should be spending less time passively listening to information and more time generating their own associations — evaluating the meaning for themselves and comparing new ideas to their past experiences.
One of the best ways to generate connections to new information is to associate what you’re learning to thoughts about people — say, by thinking through how the information applies to you personally. Studies suggest that there may be a special memory network devoted specifically to social information. Connecting new ideas to social thoughts and social interactions, then, can be a powerful way to expand your network of associations and maximize later recall.
One way to recruit the brain’s social learning networks is to plan to teach what you’ve learned to a friend or loved one. As you learn, ask yourself what new ideas you’ll share and how you’ll frame it for them to help them understand. By taking what you learn and mentally connecting it to a future social interaction, you link the brain’s social memory network to the new content, resulting in greater retention over time.
The third element that promotes learning is the presence of emotion. It’s no coincidence that some of the most emotional moments of our lives seem unforgettable, indelibly seared into our minds. The reason this happens is that emotional arousal activates the hippocampus and accelerates the formation of new memories — the equivalent of kicking a car into high gear.
Of course, strong emotions can also distract us from the content being learned, and negative emotions in particular can trigger a threat response that interferes with learning. If you’re angry or upset over a personal crisis, you may find it difficult to focus on what you’re learning. That’s why the optimal state for learning is a moderate amount of positive emotion — a state that’s been shown to promote creativity, insight and perception.
So how do you design a learning program that arouses a moderate level of positive emotion? By maximizing novelty, entertainment and positive anticipation, and by incorporating rewarding social experiences in which learners can connect with other people.
Most training programs occur in a single session, often a half-day or full-day seminar. But studies show that single-session trainings yield very little long-term retention, even when satisfaction ratings are high.
Contrary to popular belief, our memory doesn’t work like a tape recorder in which information that’s recorded once automatically gets stored forever. Rather, we grow memories over time. To acquire and retain new knowledge, your neural connections must change. To do that, it helps to rehearse new knowledge a number of times over a period of days.
One of the most consistent findings in memory science is that people remember best when learning is spaced out over time. The single best way to maximize long-term retention is to let time pass after learning new information, then revisit it. Even spacing within a single learning session — creating two shorter sessions with a break in between — leads to superior recall a week later.
But this effect is magnified when the gap between learning and re-engagement includes one or more nights of sleep. Sleeping between sessions is a powerful way to encode new knowledge in the form of stable, long-term memories, a process that works both by discarding irrelevant information and by helping integrate new information with existing knowledge.
For optimal retention, learners should revisit new information at least three times after their first exposure to it.
Just as important, memory encoding works best when, rather than passively reviewing the material you’ve already learned, you instead test your memory, challenging yourself to actively retrieve what you’ve learned. Even if you don’t remember much, the act of retrieving itself will strengthen neural connections and help cement learning into long-term memory.
The science is clear. When it comes to designing learning programs, research has yielded clear guidelines about what works and what doesn’t. By taking steps to ensure that all four elements of AGES are incorporated, organizations can help create the conditions for learning that endures.
This is the first in a five-part series by the NeuroLeadership Institute on the neuroscience of learning.