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Ask a Trainer: How Can I Apply Brain Science to Virtual Learning?

Tuesday, July 28, 2020
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In this week’s Ask a Trainer guest post, Britt Andreatta discusses principles of learning science that can be applied to virtual learning.

Dear Britt,

I’m a learning experience designer, and like many in our field, I’ve had to move my courses online more or less overnight. I’ve seen high attendance and completion rates for my courses, but I’m having a hard time determining my learners’ engagement levels. In particular, I’m struggling with how to gauge learning transfer when I can’t actually see my learners and follow up in person. I always try to apply best practices in learning sciences to my learning experiences, and I know you’re an expert in that space. Do you have any suggestions for how I can apply learning science to virtual learning?



Great question! There are a few areas you can look at. The first involves habits, which is something learning designers have always needed to pay attention to. One of the things I've noticed is that we spend a lot of time designing learning experiences where the knowledge transfer happens but the behavior transfer doesn't. That's where we can do a better job, whether the learning experience is in-person or online.

If you are already paying attention to habit design and it was built into your learning experiences, it's easy to pivot to online learning. In my event, I'm now sending my learners into a virtual room to practice, but they're still practicing. If you didn't have practice built in, you're going to see less learning transfer because people will just go back to how they always did the tasks you’re training them on. People might have had a wonderful experience, and you'll get good Level 1 evaluations, but you’re not going to see the actual behavior change unless you're considering habit transfer.

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The second piece that everyone trying to teach in a virtual world should keep in mind is that learning only happens when people focus. We cannot multitask and learn at the same time, because our brains must be able to focus. We need to strongly encourage people to shut off their email and other forms of distraction. If they're in the learning experience and they're checking their email, they've now disrupted the ability for their brain to push that knowledge into long-term memory. In an in-person event we can tell people to close their laptops and ask them to be present, and we can bring their attention to what we need them to look at. That's a little harder to do online. We can certainly do it, but we have to pay attention to it.

I would also add that our brains process information incredibly fast. If you put up a slide where the five points you want to make are laid out in bullets, the brain sees that, quickly skims the five things you're going to say, and it’s going to look for some other way to entertain itself. It’s important, particularly when you move to online learning, to have more slides. You have to change that image every five seconds. You have to have way more imagery because the brain is going to look more at pictures than it is words. Learning designers have to capture and keep attention. Just pay attention to yourself. If something's on the screen for too long, and it’s static, you're going to want to click somewhere else. The brain is seeking stimulation. If it's not getting it through the learning event, it's going to go find it somewhere else.

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Learn more about the brain science of learning from Britt Andreatta on the ATD Accidental Trainer podcast. Her episode will air on July 29, 2020.



If you have a question for Ask a Trainer, send it to [email protected]. You can find answers to previous questions by visiting the Ask a Trainer hub. Tim will be back next week to tackle a new question.



We welcome your comments and engagement on these posts. All posts are reviewed to ensure appropriateness based on ATD’s requirements for postings in our online communities.

Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Britt Andreatta knows how to harness human potential. Drawing on her unique background in leadership, psychology, education, and the human sciences, she has a profound understanding of how to bring out the best in people. Britt was recently recognized as a winner of Chief Learning Officer magazine's prestigious Trailblazer Award. Britt is a seasoned professional with 25 years of experience in consulting, coaching, and teaching talent development. Her research and experience with businesses, universities, and nonprofits inform powerful solutions for today's workplace challenges. Britt has published seven titles on leadership, learning, and management at lynda.com (now part of LinkedIn, where she serves as the director of learning and development and senior learning consultant for global talent development. Britt is currently writing a book, The Potential Paradigm and recently delivered a TEDxTalk called "How Your Past Hijacks Your Future." She's served as professor and dean at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Antioch University; and several graduate schools.

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Learning science has provided the same guidance for a very long time before "brain science" became a thing. Why not just say that "We cannot multitask and learn at the same time, because our MINDS must be able to focus." Instead of focusing on the biology that supports our learning activity, we should focus on Learning Science and keep our explanations at the level of learning, not biology.
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Learning transfer vs Behaviour Transfer! Good one!
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