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New Brain Research Finds that Quality of Learning Really Matters


Thu Dec 11 2014

New Brain Research Finds that Quality of Learning Really Matters

Similar questions plague every organization. WHAT should we be training? HOW do our employees best learn? How do we help them retain new information?

Depending on who you ask, there are multiple answers to these questions. Certainly, there are best practices, like develop training with a clear end goal in mind. Or, if you’re trying to create more well-rounded leaders, ensure that there are clear leadership development tracks in place. However, there is a more fundamental element of learning—something that affects people regardless of organizational culture, training priority, or even the kind of training. It’s the brain.


The brain is the most complex and misunderstood part of who we are as humans. Fortunately for us, the brain is plastic and constantly changing. What do I mean by plastic? Well, it isn’t rigid or fixed; it has the ability to change and adapt as a result of experience.

We’ve known this for some time; however new research presents an interesting update on this finding—with big implications for talent development. According to the paper titled, “The Adult Brain Makes New Neurons, and Effortful Learning Keeps Them Alive,” researchers from Rutgers’ Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience have discovered that not only can the adult brain make new neurons (actually thousands of them each day), but if a learning process is in place, those neurons actually stay alive and progress even further to create new synapses and become incorporated into the existing circuitry of the brain.

More important, the study explains that the quality of learning actually made a big difference: “Learning increases the survival of newly generated cells in the hippocampus as long as the learning experience is new, effortful, and successful.”

So what does this mean for learning and development professionals?

  • Learning experiences need to happen regularly. It isn’t enough to have a training session or a specified time of training. The adult brain is constantly developing new ways of thinking and more effective ways to ideate, work, and create, but those brain processes need to be stoked and buttressed by new ways to learn.

  • Hold your employees and leaders accountable. Did you happen to notice the second word related to the quality of learning that the study pointed out? It was effortful. Even the greatest training or learning initiative in the world needs consistent effort on the part of your participants in order to succeed.

    Fortunately, this approach backs up the way that the brain actually works. Telling your employees that learning isn’t going to be easy and showing them the difficulty in learning a new skill—especially something as complex as leadership or interpersonal relationship building—is a challenge, given all the high-level thinking that they’re no doubt already engaged in. However, keeping them accountable to continually learn and put in the effort will yield big benefits.

  • Create opportunities for success. Training needs to have a clear goal in mind with success metrics. Again, this confirms with the way the brain operates—new neurons are developed by training that incorporates a learning element. The ability to actually achieve something new by learning reinforces these newly forming neural pathways and creates ways to develop new, more successful thinking patterns and habits.

Training and adult learning isn’t just something that companies should do. It is part of our makeup as humans, and it makes a significant difference in the daily actions of employees, teams, and leaders. And that makes a monumental difference in the way our organizations actually perform.


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