Seems like everyone’s jumping on the brain science bandwagon, doesn’t it? In our industry, we’re often so thrilled to have proof points that we don’t always check the science behind them. I confess that I used to propagate the “humans have the attention span of a goldfish” myth. I cringe remembering all the pictures of that slide my audiences took!

Thank goodness the AGES model (introduced by Lila Davachi, Tobias Kiefer, David Rock and Lisa Rock in 2010 and refined by researchers at Columbia, New York University and the NeuroLeadership Institute) is standing the test of time, because it’s the most useful set of practices I’ve found, and it’s backed by decades of research in cognitive science, educational psychology and, yes, emerging neuroscience. Here’s my interpretation of it:

New concepts are more likely to stick if you adhere to these principles:

  • Attention is critical.
  • Generating insights takes time.
  • Emotions govern.
  • Spaced learning sticks.

Essentially, AGES tells us that learners need to be attentive, generate and share their own original insights, establish an emotional connection to the material, and have the necessary space to sort it all out. We all know what cognitive overload feels like, and AGES helps us avoid subjecting learners to it.


Too much training is terrible because it’s hard to keep people’s attention. Great marketers and user experience designers know how, so learn from them. Think of a time when something really opened your eyes. Maybe it was a startling revelation or a groundbreaking piece of new information — breaking news, even. Things that grab our attention tend to stick around in our memory. Impactful moments leave impressions, and this notion is critical to effective learning.

For his book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” Jonah Berger studied the most popular New York Times articles and identified the top reasons content goes viral — practical ways to catch readers’ attention, including social capital and making the private public. Web designers must keep our attention with every click, so implement what they know about usability — for example, that people would rather make more choices with fewer options than choose among too many options —in your training programs.

Generate Insights

Learners need to generate original insights by connecting new concepts to their own context. For example, when banks train employees on new regulations, it’s crucial to help them understand the real-world consequences of what happens if they don’t put the new practice into motion. Not everyone can appreciate red tape, but if that red tape is explained as something necessary to ensure people don’t overdraft, that’s a consequence everyone can appreciate.

Build programs that give people an opportunity to learn a concept, stop to think about it, reflect on their own personal experience (and review the experiences of others), and then articulate their own original insights. It’s humbling when participants value each other’s contributions to a body of knowledge more than what the learning professionals designed. But once you embrace design thinking and iterate your learning designs, it becomes liberating.


Emotions rule. In his book “Irrationally Yours,” Dan Ariely writes that we tend to make decisions with our emotional brains and then justify them with our rational brains. When something triggers an emotion, we tend to make additional connections in our brains that reinforce it. When a training session triggers powerful emotions, learners draw stronger associations. If a new piece of information elicits excitement, for example, they are unlikely to forget it.

Like marketers, we can appeal to the basic emotions, like surprise, joy or fear, to grab people’s attention. But once they are committed to learning, focus on their “academic emotions” like confusion, frustration or boredom — or, better yet, curiosity, delight and flow.


Many online learning experiences are self-directed, with content available for learners to consume at their convenience. I used to value self-direction over time-released content, but I was ignoring what we know about human nature. Without interim deadlines, learners tend to wait until the very end of the course and then cram it all in at once — and cramming doesn’t work.

Spacing does. A step-by-step approach to learning is far more likely to support retention down the road than a binge session, where most of the information is hazy a week or so later. Incremental learning is key (Will Thalheimer’s research into spaced learning is full of guidance).

Try applying AGES to your own learning design. You might be surprised at the results.