How do we become better at developing training in and out of the classroom in order to impact the perceived return on investment of what we do? The solution may lie in brain-based learning.

Learning professionals are often put into unique situations where they must teach content as quickly as possible with the expectation that the learner will leave the class and be completely proficient at the topic. While we are growing better at creating opportunities for chunking and segmenting information into buckets and creating experiential activities, this approach is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Coming into the classroom, learners have different preferences, backgrounds and abilities, which is why multimodal learning approaches are so important. However, ask any organization if its learning programs are as effective as possible, and the answer will likely be that they could be more effective.

While exploring this problem, I came across an interesting piece of neuroscience research suggesting that learning involves changing the brain and that moderate stress helps learning and memory. People learn differently under stress than they do in normal situations, and emotion plays a part in the process. Armed with this knowledge, the question then becomes how we, as learning professionals, should create environments of moderate stress, especially considering that research also shows that excessive stress is detrimental to learning.

A normal workday includes a moderate amount of stress. There are impending deadlines, demanding leaders and peer pressure. Effective teams celebrate success, which helps minimize stress. As drivers of learning in our organizations, we need to find a way to harness stress as a source of energy and focus it in a positive way that can impact learning and memory, especially if we expect our trainees to hit the ground running. We need to do so in not just a multimodal, but also in a multi-sensory, way, and the answer is not just providing new information.

1. Memory and Learning Are Connected

One of the best ways to learn something new is to connect it to a past experience. We usually call this process learning transfer, but the scientific theory behind it is constructivism. Constructivism suggests that people create their own understanding and knowledge of the world by reflecting on their experiences. When we come across new material or are presented with new information, we decide what to do with it based on our ideas and experiences. We reflect, ask questions and maybe even search online for more information. We can change our mind with new information or choose to ignore the information altogether.

As learning professionals, we can capitalize on this process with multiple application points – for example, work and home or repetition and use (think spiral learning). This approach helps learners build on what they already know, and the optimal, moderate level of stress comes from the work of making the connections.

2. Create Social Interactions as Part of the Learning Experience

We are naturally wired to want interactions with others. This tendency enhances learning and can happen in multiple ways. Brainstorming, project work, focusing on a job-related challenge together, role-playing and sharing ideas help people learn more effectively. When we work together, we learn better, faster and more. If the project is challenging and requires thinking and recall, you will create a moderate level of stress.

3. Consider Empathy

People learn best if they feel like someone cares about their learning, and one of the top contributors to employee engagement is whether people feel like they have a friend at work. Learning professionals must have empathy for programs to result in real success.

If the instructor believes in the learner, research has shown that he or she performs better. If the teacher doesn’t convey concern or questions their ability, the learner’s performance suffers. Feeling positive about learning experiences allows the brain to release endorphins and improves the learning situation. Storytelling is a good way to express the perception of caring; we can create a pathway through stories that show empathy.

4. Change Topics or Activities Often

People multitask and move quickly between things that hold their attention. To be agile, learning professionals should change either the person talking, the place learning occurs or the topic every 10 to 20 minutes. This change may involve a guest speaker, an environmental change (think activity or music), changing seats, or a new information chunk. We need to physically involve participants in the activities of learning. Sitting too long makes people sleepy and disengaged. Try pairing concepts with images that learners are call upon later when you ask questions about them. The recall will cause a moderate stress response that will enhance learning. It makes people think on their feet and creates agility.

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