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Your Brain and the Future of Corporate Learning Practices


Thu Dec 22 2016

Your Brain and the Future of Corporate Learning Practices

Are you using brain science to leverage corporate learning practices and facilitate effective learning transfer? 

Organizations that fail to adjust their learning management practices and solutions often struggle with organizational growth or productivity. As a result, leading companies are abandoning traditional methods of learning in favor of more effective solutions using neuroscience and technology to engage talent and improve performance. 


With the explosion in brain research during the past 10 to 15 years, scientists now know more about the brain than ever before. Research in cognitive sciences and neuroscience has produced profound insights into the ways learning occurs. These insights are particularly relevant in today’s climate, and can help us to design learning solutions that tap into how the brain naturally learns. The application of these insights to workplace talent development can help organizations achieve sustainable competitive advantage. 

Ensuring learning transfer is the greatest and most important challenge facing workplace talent development professionals. But what is the best way to make learning stick? Here are some effective techniques that can be used to enhance learning and memory. 

Spaced Learning and Retrieval 

The spacing effect and retrieval are two of the most robust findings in cognitive neuroscience for enhancing memory and learning. Spaced learning is an approach in which learners are exposed to the content multiple times with breaks in between. It was first described by the 19th-century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus: He found that repetition is crucial for learning, but memories form more readily and durably if these repetitions are spaced out rather than clumped together. 

The spacing effect (also referred to as distributed practice or interval reinforcement) is a well-documented practice of giving information over time with specific spacing in between. Essentially, spacing is the opposite of cramming. Long-term retention of the information improves as the spacing between repeated study events increases. This cognitive strategy can be used to improve memory by spacing out or distributing informational or practice sessions over time to enhance knowledge retention. 

The second is the retrieval or testing effect, which refers to the finding that repeatedly retrieving information is more effective for long-term retention compared with repeated study. In fact, in the light of this finding, tests and quizzes should be regarded not only as a means of assessing what has been learned, but also as effective learning tools. 


When retrieval practice is combined with spacing, it is referred to as spaced-retrieval. This combination has been shown to be very effective for long-term retention. Hence, to enhance memory and ensure learning transfer, we should actively retrieve the information we want to remember, and this retrieval should be spaced out over time. 


One of the effective ways in which spaced retrieval can be practiced in organizations to enhance learning is microlearning. Microlearning is a process that involves taking content (information or knowledge) and repeating the presentation of that content to employees over predefined intervals so it is effectively reinforced. In other words, it is an ongoing test-refresh cycle in bite-sized pieces that makes learning stick. Such a program usually starts with the critical learning points from a prior learning event, and performs a repeated test and refresh cycle until knowledge retention to a specific level is achieved. The space in between each repetition is also important in maximizing information retention. 

When microlearning is delivered in a consistent, ongoing way, you can drive continuous learning, build up knowledge over time, and produce real behavior change that results in improved job performance. 


The gamification of learning is another hot topic. Proponents suggest that the use of games can significantly increase learning transfer. Connections have also been made between the use of computer games and brain plasticity.  

Neuroscientists have found that this may be related to the way in which games present uncertain rewards. This uncertainty stimulates the reward center of the brain and can be helpful in encouraging learning. Neuroscientists have shown that dopamine levels in the midbrain region increase as we anticipate a reward. They rise even more if an element of blind chance determines whether we actually get the reward. Dopamine uptake in this specific context can lead to heightened emotional responses and increased engagement. Moreover, stimulating the brain’s reward circuitry in this way can enhance the formation of new memories. 


Gamification also supports retrieval practice in a great way. There’s a substantial amount of literature that supports both retrieval and gamification. If a game is fun, it grabs your attention, and if it’s combined with retrieval, it’s a strong combination to support long-term memory.  

The brain loves to learn, and organizations can tap into the learning capacities of the brain to achieve learning outcomes. Organizational initiatives guided by scientific breakthroughs should combine to drive talent development.


Want to learn more? Join me at the ATD 2017 India Summit in Mumbai on January 17, 2017, or Bangalore on January 19, 2017.

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