Do you want your virtual training sessions to result in longer-term impact? As trainers, we can learn much from neuroscientists about how to strengthen connections between the neurons in the brains of our learners.

These four steps describe the learning process:

  • Learn it (You are exposed to new information)
  • Encode it (You begin to transfer that information from short-term to long-term memory)
  • Recall it (You retrieve it from short-term or long-term memory)
  • Apply it (You firmly anchor that new knowledge in long-term memory)

The best training applies these steps to ensure maximum knowledge retention and skill development. Here are six brain-based principles that can help you increase learning retention in your web workshops.

  1. Prime the Pump

Get the learning experience started even before the training begins by addressing your learners’ ABCs:

  • Attitude: Before they arrive at your webinar, send a message welcoming them to the program with positive statements such as, “This web workshop will be engaging, fun, and productive. I guarantee you will take away practical tools that will help you complete your tasks more effectively.” Your positive attitude prepares their brains for a pleasant, supportive experience.
  • Behavior: Share the learning objectives and make sure they are focused on results (not activities they will participate in during the webinar). Include a testimonial video featuring a success story from a past workshop.
  • Cognitive: Provide a challenging case study to show what knowledge can be gained during the session. Consider giving them a quick quiz to test their current knowledge.
  1. Chunk it Down

Your challenge is to get and keep people’s attention in the virtual classroom. With the trend toward microlearning, shorter content segments are often better. In the virtual classroom, however, you can successfully hold your learners’ attention on one topic for 10 to 15 minutes, as long as you aren’t lecturing the whole time.

For example, in a leadership program for remote managers, we show a two-minute video featuring an inspiring company where employees love their jobs. We invite participants to ask themselves while watching: “What is the most important takeaway about your virtual team’s motivation?” Participants then type their significant takeaway in a chat pod, which we debrief aloud. We follow that with the learning point that for many, work has little value unless it contributes to a higher purpose. Then we ask these remote managers to reflect on a new question, “How will you adapt your actions as a virtual leader to help people understand the purpose of their work?” The learning process in this 10-minute content segment consists of a short video, discussion question, key concept, self-reflection and commitment to action.

In a 60-minute web workshop, you might have four or five content segments. At the end of each 10- to 15-minute segment, review and summarize, or have participants put what they’ve learned in their own words.

  1. Mix it Up

You’ve probably heard about the forgetting curve: people forget 90 percent of what they’ve learned within one week of a training session. Our brains are wired to ignore or forget anything that is considered redundant or irrelevant. This filtering function is actually a survival mechanism. We are flooded with extraneous information in every moment.

As John Medina explains in his compelling book, Brain Rules, “People don’t pay attention to boring things.” When we design and deliver learning activities, we must introduce novelty, humor and surprise. Think of the last flight you took where the attendant delivered the same safety demonstration you’ve heard a million times. You might have turned to the in-flight magazine for entertainment instead of watching. But imagine a flight attendant who makes silly comments and spices up the safety lecture with dry humor. Your ears perk up at the surprise of that first joke.

In your virtual training sessions, you may have to work against the tendency of your learners to multitask. You win their attention by the creative use of novelty in the exercises you design and deliver. Use a variety of interaction tools to engage them (chat, polling, whiteboard, drawing tools, video, audio, emoticons and breakout rooms) without becoming overly dependent on a favorite tool.

We know that short-term memory degrades over time. One way to “mix it up” is to introduce a skill or concept; discuss and practice it, then put it aside and move to a different topic. Return to the topic later (the next day or the next week) and add another element. The act of recalling what was learned previously, adding to that knowledge and applying it again, reinforces the brain’s function of moving content from short-term to long-term memory. This learning method is called “spacing” and it demonstrably results in greater long-term retention.

When we train virtual facilitators to deliver engaging web workshops, we have them attend three webinars over three weeks. Along the way, they complete assignments to develop a 20-minute practice webinar, returning to their design repeatedly as they learn and apply new concepts. The learning experience culminates in their delivery of this interactive practice webinar that incorporates the techniques they’ve adopted over the previous month.

  1. Sleep on It

No, your participants should not take naps during your training sessions. But neuroscientists know that while the waking brain encodes memories, the sleeping brain consolidates memories. One hour of slow-wave sleep allows the brain to move information from the hippocampus (where short-term memory resides) to the neocortex (where long-term memory is consolidated). Slow-wave sleep occurs in between REM (rapid eye movement) cycles as we sleep at night. A one-hour nap after a learning experience might actually be a great boon to long-term retention.

Let’s face it, though, it’s not usually practical to let our participants take naps. So how can we capitalize on this learning principle? Because short-term memory degrades over time, there are benefits to ensuring that participants study and learn as close to bedtime as they can. You want the process of consolidating information from short-term memory to long-term memory to begin as soon after the learning event as possible. Instead of scheduling virtual training first thing in the morning, try scheduling it toward the end of the work day. Then provide job aids, reinforcement tools, or articles, and encourage people to review critical concepts before they go to sleep at night.

If you have an exam to take, study up until bedtime and then get a good night’s sleep, rather than pulling an all-nighter. Cramming for a test rarely works as well as reviewing content in chunks over several nights, “sleeping on it” chunk by chunk.

  1. Test and Retest

Most people dislike tests because they can be stressful. The real value of testing is that it encourages the retrieval and application of information. So, the question becomes, “How can you make testing fun?” One way is to gamify the testing process so that participants are rewarded when they answer correctly and gently redirected for incorrect answers. If you play online games, you probably experience music, chimes and encouragement whenever you do something well. This feedback activates your brain’s reward center. You feel good about the experience and want to continue.

When we first developed an online coaching and reinforcement tool, a video coach would appear when the participant answered incorrectly; a correct answer would only play audio. When we tested the prototype, we were surprised to hear that it was an “unfriendly” experience. We redesigned the experience so that the coach appeared on video to praise participants for correct answers.

  1. Use it or Lose it

This final brain-based principle reinforces the need to actively apply new concepts on the job, for example, practicing a coaching model you introduced. Have participants complete a coaching worksheet to think through how they might apply the steps of the model to an on-the-job situation. Then place participants into online breakout rooms in groups of three. There each person can practice coaching a peer while an observer takes notes and offers feedback. Once every participant has practiced coaching, bring them back to the full group to probe for their insights and observations.

As designers of virtual classroom experiences, we need to think beyond the synchronous classroom event, however, and create opportunities for participants to apply what they learned, evaluate their results and report back to their colleagues. You might add a social collaboration site like Yammer to the learning mix. Ask participants to conduct the coaching conversation with the actual employee back at work. Give them a reflection worksheet to evaluate how they did and include a post-webinar assignment to share their reflections with their colleagues.

As you incorporate these six brain-based learning principles into your design and delivery techniques, you’ll transform your virtual classroom. Participants will learn, encode, recall and apply what they’ve learned, gaining maximum learning retention.