Stella Collins MSc, is Creative Director at Stellar Learning, author of Neuroscience for Learning and Development, numerous e-books, and the Webinars and Writing Skills Pocketbooks. She founded The Brain Friendly Learning Group and is one of the ‘Brain Ladies’. With a clear understanding of the challenges faced when people communicate tough or technical messages she and her team consult on, design and deliver results based, sticky, learning programmes, underpinned by research but with a creative twist. Stella is a Fellow of ITOL, inspires audiences at international learning conferences and online events, contributed to the CIPD’s online qualifications and says ‘There is no such thing as a boring topic – just boring training’.
Stella Collins – Guest Blog
The Neuroscience of Learning
When you’re training in the workplace you face a huge range of challenges; learners who’ve been sent without knowing why; a mix of experience levels; topics that aren’t your favourite or those of your learners; technological change, insufficient time to deliver the content; people not turning up because of something else; workshops cut short because of operational requirements; technical issues, unsupportive managers and that’s before you even start on the days when you’re tired, have a headache or a mountain of other work to complete. You can’t change everything but armed with some valuable knowledge and skills you can do your best to work creatively within the constraints you have to achieve your objectives.
Why does my learner’s motivation (and my motivation!) matter?
Learning is not a magic wand; we don’t just hear or read something and know it. Instead learning is hard work. Your brain even when it’s at rest uses more than 20% of your energy even though it’s only 2% of your body mass and our brains and bodies have evolved to conserve energy where possible. Learning means building, rebuilding and reinforcing physical and chemical connections in your brain and body which needs practice, repetition, repetition, repetition, time and energy. Learners need high motivation to do all this work. Practising can be difficult and learners need resilience or grit to keep going. When they’re not motivated they just won’t do what’s required and learning won’t happen however well designed your programme is.
Your motivation is important because we’re social beings and pick up on the emotions of those around us. If you’re not motivated your learners will know it and if the person training them isn’t enthused and excited by the learning then why would learners feel motivated? You have the ability to change the emotional and motivational temperature of your learners
Why is asking questions of learners so important?
Before reading on answer this question for yourself: What do you already know about questions?
Questions help us tap into the motivation of learners at the start. What do you want to know? What do you need to be able to do? How will this help you?
Questions are hugely powerful because they direct attention to what’s relevant, effectively waking up the neural networks where the new learning will take place. If you ask a person what they already know about cyber security for instance their brain immediately starts to pull together what they know from relevant networks. When they learn something new about the subject they already have ‘hooks’ to link the new information to the old information, making it easier to encode, store and retrieve later.
Questions can provoke curiosity, inducing a release of dopamine which is an addictive, feel good neurotransmitter that is our body and brains natural motivator. We love the feel of dopamine and want to get as much of it as we can so curious questions are a really easy way to motivate learners, particularly if they can discover the answer themselves.
Finally, asking questions and letting people guess the answer means people are more likely to remember the correct answer later and for longer, even if they guess it wrong in the first place. Some people may feel nervous about guessing a wrong answer so let them know that it’s actually useful; you’ll give them the right answer but it helps their memory if they guess first.
How does the reviewing process help learning take place?
You already know that learning takes time because learning is neuroplasticity at work. You may have heard of Hebb’s Law; ‘cells that fire, together wire together’. New pathways and neural connections are fragile to start with but as you practise, review, revise and recall learning you strengthen those pathways by building up a fatty cover on the neurons called a myelin sheath which enables signals to pass more swiftly. Repetition also primes the neurons so they are more likely to connect in the same way subsequently, through a process called long term potentiation.
Spaced repetition is one of the most effective tools for long term memory consolidation that we know of. If you’re teaching a series of ideas it’s more effective to teach ABCABCABC than AAABBBCCC because it gives the neurons associated with the different ‘topics’ time to recover before the repetition prompts them to re-fire. Long term learning can easily take up to 6 months and it’s important to keep reviewing throughout that time but, of course, applying what you’ve learned in a classroom or e-learning into the workplace is the best form of review.
Anyone can help learners to review their learning but evidence consistently shows that managers are key to people reviewing their learning and more importantly applying it in the workplace. Managers that actively show an interest in learning, support experimentation and learning from errors, provide constructive feedback and promote reflection are worth their weight in gold; they significantly improve the chances of harnessing a return on the investment from both the organisation and the learners’ points of view.
Want to Learn More?
Panda Education & Training provide bespoke training solutions for motivation, questioning and reviewing progress. To see more visit our bespoke pages and contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 029 2167 9037.