Science of Learning - Dr. Srini Pillay

When businesses undergo tremendous reorganization or change, learning is essential to adapt to these changes. On the surface, this may seem like a simple task, but in the brain, learning under uncertainty is fraught with challenges at every step, ranging from the acquisition of new skills to the implementation of learning. It is demotivating when negative emotional states thwart the enthusiasm to learn, so learning and development (L&D) would be wise to prepare learners for these challenges. 

2 Kinds of Uncertainty  

Although uncertainty can be understood in many ways, one distinction made by researchers is stochasticity (expected uncertainty or risk) vs. volatility (unexpected uncertainty). For example, new technology would have expected uncertainty in the challenges of adoption, but if there is a sudden industry disruption such that the competition is threatening, this volatility could dampen motivation even more. 

Self-Determination Theory and L&D  

According to self-determination theory (SDT), there are three factors that enhance the brain’s capacity to feel intrinsically motivated. They are autonomy, competence and social relations. This implies L&D would be wise to foster flexible learning strategies — and to promote an environment that encourages the acquisition of new skills as well as peer-based learning. Combining all three as it relates to any new competency ranging from resilience to rapid technology deployment would be a slam dunk. 

Practically speaking, how could you do this? At Reulay, an AI-based digital platform that enhances well-being for high performance, we address this through a feed that provides growth mindset tips, affirmations and random acts of kindness, as well as anxiety-reducing video experiences that are personalized. Several factors can decrease motivation ranging from overwhelm, to worry, lack of focus, bodily discomfort or feeling trapped, hopeless or uninspired. Allowing employees to select what most obstructs their motivation prevents a one-size-fits-all approach.

Social-Cognitive Theory and L&D  

Social-cognitive theory highlights self-efficacy as the main motivator for action. It also points out cues that affect future self-efficacy and help with self-regulated learning. Self-efficacy, a key concept in Bandura’s social cognitive theory, is the belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations. It is shaped by four main sources: past performance, observing others, encouragement from others and physical and emotional states. Internal and external factors also influence self-efficacy.  

To motivate employees to learn, L&D should focus on enhancing self-efficacy by leveraging key factors, including highlighting employees’ past successes to build confidence and provide role models to inspire them. Offering regular encouragement and creating a supportive learning environment can reduce stress and boost confidence.  

Addressing internal factors involves setting realistic learning goals and offering personalized learning paths, while addressing external factors includes ensuring access to necessary resources and fostering a culture that values continuous learning. In addition, offering employees a guide to daily affirmations can contribute to enhancing self-efficacy. 

In the brain, self-efficacy is enhanced when there are more fluent connections in the corresponding network (the default mode network or DMN). Creating a day structure that allows for periods of unfocus will help to turn this circuit on. 

Summary of Action Items  

To boost motivation to learn under conditions of change and uncertainty, L&D leaders should help prepare employees’ brains by prioritizing the factors mentioned using the following mnemonic as a guide: GROW THRIVE, which stands for: Growth Mindsets; Role Models, Opportunities for Skill Acquisition; Well-being Support; Targeted Personalization; Historical Success Recollection; Regular Affirmations; Integration of Peer-based Learning; Valued Continuous Learning Culture; Encourage Periods of Unfocus. L&D leaders can creatively apply this mnemonic in their approach to learning with or without the support of technology.