Modern learners are constantly bombarded by information.

Formally and informally, trainees receive mountains of tips, suggestions and rules of thumb aimed at improving workplace performance. Our brains are remarkably well-equipped for dealing with this kind of information overload – they just filter most of it out. In fact, the majority of what we “learn” never enters our memories in the first place.

No matter how well-crafted your training is, you may not be getting through to your learners. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are ways to ensure that learners hear your message.

The brain’s filter

Our brains were confronted with too much information far before search engines, mobile devices and social media. Receiving non-stop sensory input, our brains evolved to vigilantly decide what to remember and what to disregard.

Think of your memory as an overburdened inbox and this process as the brain’s ruthless spam filter. Overwhelmed by a constant stream of messages, the filter classifies nearly everything it receives as “junk” and immediately hits delete. Only the most important messages make it inside.

The brain makes these split-second decisions countless times throughout the day. So, how does it determine what to let through the filter?

Getting past the filter

Like a spam filter, the brain has a system for identifying meaningful content and flagging junk. Psychologists call this process “meaningful encoding.” Just as the filter decides what makes it into your inbox based on certain criteria (if it’s from someone on your contact list, for example), the brain uses cues to signify whether a message is important and worth retaining.

Researchers are still studying these cues and shortcuts, but they’ve identified several that appear to be strongly linked to memory and encoding. If you can attach these cues to your training content, it will more likely make it into memory:

Social learning. The brain prioritizes information that’s received in a social context, particularly when peers are invested and believe the content is important. Incorporating a social element into training – group discussions, role-plays, peer learning exercises – cues the brain that the content is meaningful. Humans are social beings tapping into this nature will help training stick.

Active learning. The brain favors active learning over passive instruction. Practice and hands-on activities are proven shortcuts into memory. For example, have learners act out the process of tackling a realistic workplace challenge instead of just memorizing the steps.

Connection to existing knowledge. The brain judges content that’s related to information already in learners’ memories to be more important. So connecting new information to existing knowledge will help it get through the filter. To establish the connection, present new concepts using familiar terminology and relate the new information to well-known ideas. Build on learners’ foundation of knowledge by comparing the new concepts to their previous experiences.

Repetition. Regularly repeated information is deemed to be important and sticks. This is why it’s easy to remember a new password at work or to get a song stuck in your head. If something keeps coming up, the brain’s filter considers it meaningful and lets it in. Harness the power of repetition by revisiting and reinforcing key content across multiple training sessions.

Remember, your learners’ filter is relentless. Consider incorporating these cues into your training design and your important content will be less likely to end up in the junk folder.

Article Resources:

Bjork, R.A., et al. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-231.