Using science to create more effective and engaging learning
Who remembers Jennifer Aniston starring in the 1990s L’Oréal shampoo adverts with the iconic line: “Here comes the science bit. Concentrate!”?
Some of us may not have responded well to that message – it almost implied that women wouldn’t understand science without listening very carefully.
But nonetheless, a grip on science is important in all aspects of life. Whether it’s how we choose to wash or style our hair; how we can make ourselves better when we’re sick; the recipes you choose to cook; how we communicate and work on a global scale… And for us in L&D, how we can leverage science to create more effective, more memorable learning and quantifiably better learning results.
This deep dive explores:
- Learning Science Theory - how learning science theories have influenced how we design solutions at Kineo
- Neuroscience and L&D - The insights that we gain from neuroscience and learning psychology that help us to understand the workings of the mind and brain
- Psychology-based theories for learning - how we can drive behavior change in the workplace
Three theories of learning
Kineo is grounded in our beliefs about how people interpret and process information and ultimately commit it to long term memory. As well as neuroscience and learning psychology, we rely on a few tried and tested learning theories that go back a long way.
You could argue some of these theories are best left in the past. We don’t: we think they provide us with a solid foundation to build upon or amend.
As the Dalai Lama once said
“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
Take behaviorism as an example. This theory was established circa 1913, in John B. Watson's classic paper, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.”
Behaviorism is a study of how controlled changes to an environment impact someone’s, or something’s, observable behavior. The famous study of Pavlov’s dogs – and the subsequent theory known as classic conditioning - is a great indicator of how this works in a learning situation.
The teacher controls the environment in which people learn and uses a system of rewards and punishments to influence the likelihood of the desired behaviors they wish to see occur. Participants get a hit of dopamine – the chemical spike you experience when you get unexpected rewards and the subsequent dip with the unexpected removal of that reward.
Behaviourism in action
Google’s Head of Behavioral Science, Maya Shanker, describes some of this in her presentation ‘Why do we do what we do?’ In 2015, while supporting the Whitehouse to help veterans to sign up for benefits, they had an uptake challenge.
Just one word change in the marketing message made an enormous difference. Instead of telling veterans they were eligible for the program, it said they had earned it. The notion of reward, it seems, can be effective.
Whilst some principles of behaviorism are still practiced today, we believe they can downplay the role of the student in the process and their ability to problem solve and make decisions, whilst viewing humans as animals and disregarding emotion and the wider context in which they find themselves.
Implications for learning design
We use behaviorist learning theory sparingly. It can be useful in gamified scenarios, where we might downgrade learners with low scores and reward those with high scores with badges and congratulations.
But whilst unexpected removal of rewards can work in certain - especially competitive – learning situations (in sales, for example), more recent research shows that loss aversion is more powerful than the desire to gain. We’re much more motivated to avoid loss than to seek something, like points on a leader board.
That gives us inspiration when it comes to designing stories and scenarios – if you start with a big score in a game, for example, you will be more motivated to prevent that score dropping (i.e., hold on to it) than you will be to improve it.
At Kineo, we are more likely to replace behaviorist theory with other learning theories such as cognitivism and constructivism.
Cognitive psychology, originating a little later than behaviorism in the 1950s, takes a far sounder approach in our opinion. As well as considering what learners are doing, it considers what they are thinking.
Cognitivism focuses on the mental processes that affect behavior and the three stages of memory: sensory, short term, long term.
We consider all three in our design practices but ultimately the goal is to support our learners to commit short-term memory into long-term memory.
We often think of Ebbinghaus and his famous ‘forgetting curve’ and try to encourage clients to commit to a more sustained campaign-based approach to learning rather than offer up a ‘single experience’. The spacing effect for which he is known suggests that by spacing out and repeating learning, as opposed to cramming it all in one go, we can increase long-term memory retention.
The Nine Events of Instruction
When we were founded in 2005, our ‘go to’ learning psychologist was Robert Gagné, who founded the Nine Events of Instruction. We have never adhered to his process rigidly, but we embraced the flexible concept.
We pretty much always included the nine events somewhere or other in the flow of learning in what we referred to then as our ‘knowledge and skills builder’ courses.
The end product was always more than its constituent parts. The tried and tested rules resting behind Clark and Mayer’s cognitive-based ‘Science of Instruction’ (in particular their multimedia principles) still guide our work today.
As does the cognitive-based science behind Gestalt theory, which also looks at the human mind and behavior as a whole, and how we perceive things as bigger than their individual elements.
Cognitivism tells us how important it is not to overwhelm the learner with unnecessary information. At Kineo, we are big fans of personalized learning programs which offer learners the chance to avoid completing a two-hour course by passing a diagnostic which removes topics they already understand.
We can also space learning out by using microlearning philosophies and campaign methodologies and therefore decrease the cognitive load that way, delivering up bite-sized pieces at a time.
Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction
- Gaining the attention of the students
- Informing the learner of the objective
- Stimulating recall of prior learning
- Presenting the content
- Providing learning guidance
- Eliciting the performance
- Providing feedback
- Assessing the performance
- Enhancing retention and transfer
Before we delve into the detail of how neuroscience and learning psychology can inform our designs, let’s touch on one more learning theory: constructivism. Whilst closely aligned with cognitivism, it takes us closer to what we know today about the importance of social context.
Constructivist theory is linked to cognitivist theory, with its origins in the research work carried out by Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Gagne, and Bruner.
It states that learners don’t acquire knowledge and understanding by passively absorbing information. It is actively mental work.
Makes sense, right? People don’t change behaviors by listening to a lecture, completing a piece of learning or watching a video. We only change our outlooks and behaviors when we experience something for ourselves, talk about it, or integrate it with what we already know.
Knowledge is constructed based on individual experiences and hypotheses of our environment and we test these through social negotiation with others.
“We all conceive of the external reality somewhat differently, based on our unique set of experiences with the world and our beliefs about them.”
Learning as a dialogue
Constructivism has its roots in philosophy. Philosophy, a word from the Greek, meaning ‘love of wisdom’, is about studying the big questions – our existence, reason, knowledge, values, mind and language. These are often posed as something to be queried and resolved.
Constructivism teaches us that we need to take the role of facilitators, not instructors. We need to be in continuous dialogue with our learners, rather than sending out missives of learning content, because learning is a constructive, active process.
That’s where MOOCs and platforms such as Curatr, are really useful tools. We also build these essential elements of discussion and reflective, problem solving and sensory activities into our learning campaign plans.
Implications for learning design
We need to design learning programs, which include elements of discussion among peers, whether that is face-to-face or in an online format. We need to give learners opportunities to work on problems and come to their own solutions.
- To collaborate and understand the importance of the context of their learning.
- To make connections between their pre-existing knowledge and what they are being taught.
- To provide opportunities to reflect and mentally engage, as well as hands-on activities and physical experience too.
- To find their own motivation for committing to the learner journey.
Whilst these learning theories are grounded in the past, they still inform our thinking to a considerable extent. But one thing we know for sure: science doesn’t stay still. You need a finger on the pulse to stay up to date with the latest research.
By keeping up to date with neuroscience and learning psychology, we can keep evolving what we define as best practice and how we should design for learners today.
Neuroscience and L&D
If you look up definitions of learning, you’re usually met with a similar description:
Acquisition of knowledge or skills, through study, experience, or being taught.
We don’t refute that. But ultimately what we are talking about, when we talk about learning, is change.
Our brains are adaptable. Or to use the scientific term, ‘neuroplastic’. When we learn something new, the physical structure in our brain changes. It reorganizes itself. How cool is that?
Knowing how the brain works and changes means we can create better, stickier learning that drives people towards genuine change and transmit information from short term to long term memory (i.e. knowledge into action). That's why an understanding of neuroscience is vital to us in L&D.
As learning consultant Stella Collins says, "You can be a great practitioner without knowing any of the neuroscience. However, I think you can improve your professionalism, your capability, and the results you get by knowing a little bit about people's brains and how they learn."
Collins uses a great mnemonic called LEARNS, which reflects Kineo’s best practice approach to design:
- Link to what you already know
- Use Emotion to drive motivation and connection
- Use anchors to connect learning to everyday things or situations
- Repeat as much as you can/is necessary
- Be as Novel as you can be
- Use Stories to create emotions
That sounds like a perfect formula to us and aligns with our understanding of what neuroscience tells us to consider when designing great learning experiences.
So how would we apply the principles of LEARNS when designing learning at Kineo?
Link to what you already know
Stimulating recall of prior knowledge was one of Gagne’s Nine Steps of Instruction. It is well known that as part of the learning process, we build on:
- what we already know
- what we have come to understand through our experiences in life
- what we know from our attitudes and beliefs.
Without that, learning can be challenging and time consuming.
At Kineo we activate prior knowledge in various ways. We might start a learning experience with a diagnostic quiz, so learners can assess what they already know upfront. Sometimes this directly influences the content they need to work through afterwards, meaning that they don’t need to wade through what they already know.
We also regularly start our learning experiences with a thought provoking question or relevant problem that probes learners to think about what they already know before they begin.
Getting to know your audience through verbal consultation or surveys before you design the learning means that you can take account of the knowledge and skills they already possess. You can then use any examples shared as the basis for the stories and scenarios you include, so they feel authentic and relatable.
What you find out about their experience levels should also influence the amount of detail you go into. You may need to have different versions of the learning dependent on job role, seniority, length of service and so on. You can also support learners by advising on any prerequisite learning required beforehand.
Use emotion to drive motivation and connection
Emotions have been shown to play a huge part in the learning experience. They can inhibit or enhance our ability to learn.
What if your learning had a poorly designed interface with confuses learners? The resulting frustration (and emotional reaction that results) can disengage learners from the get-go. Learning should feel easy and enjoyable to complete.
Learners are more likely to remember content and take action when there is an emotional connection. Ultimately, this emotional response helps keep us safe – we only remember what feels important to us.
Without it, you are likely to lose your learners' attention. And without your learners' attention, learning is unlikely to take place.
Make the connection:
- Understand your audience: We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again. To know which stories, metaphors and analogies will resonate, take the time to understand your audience(s). Seeing the world through their eyes will make sure it is a hit (and not a miss!).
- Invoke FOMO: Likewise, how about encouraging learners to think about the impact of not doing the learning, however dry the subject matter may appear. What is the emotional drive to do this? What are the consequences?
We are not suggesting we communicate or design learning in the way compliance courses often are – “if you don’t do this, you/we may be fined, or our reputation will suffer…” – but rather, create a culture where we are all working together to achieve a common goal (we discuss this more in the next chapter).
We bring so much of ourselves to work. If you feel relaxed, for example, that also helps your ability to retain information. If you’re emotionally preoccupied, of course you can’t concentrate as you want to at work.
So all those little things you can do, even if working from home, to keep your mind focused and calm are so important. When dopamine is released (dopamine is associated with reward, motivation, movement, and learning) it creates a desire to keep doing the behavior associated with that release – Pavlov’s dogs being the classic example.
The more positive we feel about learning, the more we will concentrate and draw upon mental resources and increase access to memory networks and semantic relationships and motivate flexible and efficient thinking. If we feel negative about learning it has the opposite effect.
Use anchors to connect learning with everyday things and situations
We have already mentioned the classical conditioning experienced by Pavlov’s dogs in an experiment over a hundred years ago. He would present the dogs with food and measure and assess the amount they were salivating. After a few trials, he would start to ring a bell when the food was presented. Initially, the dogs would only salivate when the food arrived, but as time went on, they began to salivate just upon hearing the bell.
You may have had similar experiences yourself. Perhaps a particular scent reminds you of a family member; or a song may take you instantly back to a period or event in your past. An advert’s ‘jingle’ may also immediately remind you of a brand.
L&D practitioners can make use of this phenomenon deliberately, by making a strong connection with the learning and an everyday thing or situation. Learners are likely to remember key messages from the learning when they encounter that everyday thing or situation. This encourages repetition of learning (we come on to the importance of that next).
Often this happens quite unconsciously, but some learners will be switched onto this and try and make those meaningful connections themselves. It is a technique often used by people learning a new language – associating visuals with words can decrease learning time and enhance retrieval and memory of the words you are learning.
Repeat as much as you can/ is necessary
It’s through repetition that we strengthen our neural pathways. Fact.
When we repeat our most important messages, we communicate what is key and strengthen the memory traces of previous learning. But this is not learning ‘by rote’ as our parents may have done.
Think about it like lyrics in a song. They are memorable because they work using repetition. A song, generally, has one theme. The verses often shine a new light on the chorus or refrain each time it comes round, but you’re still brought back to that overarching theme.
The same applies to what we do. How does each page of learning tie back to the main thread: what is the lesson, and what repeated ‘refrains’, and visual metaphors, can we use to reconnect with our overarching goal?
And ideally, we will use spaced repetition – learning at increasingly spaced intervals – to check whether the information has been retained. It is the learner who has to do the work, not you.
So whilst learning techniques such as end of topic summaries are powerful, we need to give the learner opportunities to put learning into practice regularly throughout the content, but also over time.
As Collins has noted, this isn’t just about cognitive overload, or the effectiveness of repetition, but it also gives our learners the opportunity to sleep between learning. Learning happens when we sleep. The information may come in during the day, but we process it at night, when we’re asleep.
It’s not impossible to learn what we need to learn from a one-off learning event, but it’s helpful to reinforce key messages after we’ve had chance to ‘sleep on it’.
Be as novel as you can be
Boredom impairs learning in the workplace. Fun feels underrated a lot of the time. We need lightness, playfulness, good humor, kindness and empathy in all areas of our lives – including the learning we produce and consume.
Our working lives can be demanding. We don’t want to add to the pressure by producing dull, stringent learning. Why be heavy when you can be light? Again, it comes down to science.
The authors of ‘Humour, Seriously’ state that
“by flooding our reward center with the neurotransmitter dopamine, humor engenders deeper levels of focus and long term retention. In other words, using humor makes your content more engaging in the moment and more memorable after the fact.”
Why not use jokes in our learning? Mockumentary type formats? Or bring Hollywood and entertainment to the fore? Pop-culture references, drama, games, social interactions, can all help provide that humorous element, as well as invoke emotion.
Novelty and unpredictability enhances the learning process. Surprising answers to curious questions lock in our memory, and it feels good when we discover something new!
Use stories to create emotions
We’ve spoken about the importance of invoking emotion in our learners. Stories, metaphors and analogies can enable that emotional connection and help learners to make meaningful connections between what they know now (prior knowledge) and what we want them to learn moving forward.
Telling stories is a vital way in which we can inspire and influence others. As is well known, the history of storytelling goes back thousands of years. The earliest cave dwellers used to paint pictures on the cave walls to tell stories and keep alive myths. The tradition has been carried forward one way or another through multiple civilisations.
The Greeks did a similar thing, showing how history was evolving, leaving poems about sorrow, war and thankfully - celebration. Shakespeare, perhaps known as one of the greatest storytellers ever, tried to relate to everyone with his stories of comedy, tragedy, romance, history etc. - and they have been proven to stand the test of time.
We all remember significant fairy tales from our youth - those that imparted wisdom, hope, or kept us up at night – and most of us enjoy stories of some sort. Whether they are those read in novels, non-fiction, newspapers or among friends in shared spaces, they can unite us in shared beliefs and best practices.
We have to know our audience to tell the right stories for maximum impact. But what is for sure, is that stories are memorable and often moving. They have the power to help us see things from another perspective - a perspective that could really impact how we choose to see the world, behave in it, and seek to change things.
There are all kinds of emotion we can invoke through stories:
By connecting with these emotions learners have all felt before, they are more likely to commit the new learning to longer-term memory and make the necessary change in behavior.
Collins has since adapted LEARNS to LEARNERS, adding the concepts of Exercise and Recovery to the list of necessary steps in the creation of sticky learning. We’d also add two more considerations of our own: making learning as multi-sensory and social as possible.
Multi-sensory learning experiences
Another important aspect of creating fun and memorable learning is bringing in the sensory aspect and more visceral levels of engagement. Whilst many of us may cringe at the idea of role play, practicing learning in a safe environment by engaging with others in simulations can result in improved cognition.
As can physically engaging with materials: it’s highly unlikely we could sell a phone, for example, without being able to use it. Providing sensory experiences creates stronger neural connections with many components at play - memory, past experiences, new experiences, knowledge gaps, emotions, and so on. They are essentially, anchors in the brain.
Multi-sensory learning experiences are also known to help those with learning challenges, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, or other medical conditions or neuromotor disorders. Learning activities that are not solely reliant on reading and writing skills can help promote self-dependence, agility of mind and reasoning ability.
Make it social
People are wired to need social interaction. We learn from real interactions and better learning takes place from this emotional and social engagement. If face-to-face work is not possible, using social forums such as MOOCs can get people into the ‘flow zone’ – encouraging emotional, and discussion-based, reactions.
So, we need to consider how we can offer more asynchronous and synchronous opportunities to connect with our peers.
Psychology-based theories for learning
Finally we’re going to look at a few psychology-based theories that are relevant to how we design learning.
We are all creatures of habit. Our habits drive the majority of what we do. If we have been persistently doing something in a certain way, we are hardwired to continue doing so. We won’t change our habits and behaviors overnight, after one piece of learning – however engaging or enjoyable it may be.
So, as we explored when looking at the theory of Cognitivism, we need to take a long-term view and space learning out over time to really embed those new behaviors we want to see. (Think like a marketer to create successful learning campaigns)
It doesn’t work to tell someone what to do and just expect them to do it. Consider what we know about nudge theory, a key concept in behavioral economics. It gives us insight into how we can influence the behavior and decision-making of our learners.
The concept of nudge theory was initially developed by Kahneman and Tversky but popularized by Thaler and Sunstein in their book, ‘Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness’. It promotes a kind of libertarian paternalism, which suggests that you can preserve someone’s right to choose whilst simultaneously guiding (rather than forcing) them to make the right decisions.
We can all be led astray, take a calculated risk, or do the wrong thing for the right reasons. But there are better ways of changing behaviors than simply through education, legislation, and enforcement.
Start with the learner front and centre
Think instead about nudging learners towards a good outcome. How can we incentivize learners to do what we would like them to?
For a start – and this isn’t the first time we’ve said this – we need to make clear what’s in it for them (WIIFM). What will they gain from doing it right, what will happen if they don’t?
This helps to build context in their minds and connect the learning back to their own personal situations (and hence make it meaningful to them). The best way to do this is at the start of any learning initiative, so it’s clear what we expect of them and what they can expect from completing it.
It's not about telling people off or disengaging them with a dull list of learning objectives. It’s about using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to influence behavior and decision-making.
If you have the budget to start with an attention-grabbing animation that makes the WIIFM clear, great. But you don’t have to go full throttle. Here are a few alternatives you can try:
- A simple statistic that demonstrates the connection
- A thought-provoking question
- A case study
- A checklist
Sometimes less is more. Something as simple as a checklist can help guide our learners and provide ‘just in time’ memory nudges when they need them most.
Checklists can be a great way of nudging people back to the correct behaviors when best practice has already been established.
No-one wants to mess up in front of their peers; they just want to know what they need to do and by when, without fear of social embarrassment.
Make it relevant
It’s also important to think about relevance. Who are you nudging, when, and on what subject? This is where learning management systems (LMSs) and analytics can play a vital role.
We can help learners to personalize their learning journey by pointing them to relevant content, dependent on job role, at the point of need. They can also see what’s trending or been voted as most useful by their peers.
We need to design solutions which play to a person’s innate strengths as well as weaknesses and give them the tools they need to make good choices. For example, you might develop authentic, nuanced scenarios that can be used to help employees overcome certain behaviors and make the right decisions.
You can encourage learners to deliberately make mistakes in a scenario or challenge – that’s where we want them to do it, of course – not in the workplace.
These scenarios can be supported by just in time, focused resources that can be drawn upon when needed, thus better preparing our learners for those different eventualities. If you can build in social discourse, so much the better.
The social aspect of learning shouldn’t be underestimated, which leads us to the notion of group affiliation.
Did you know that people are more likely to carry out expected behaviors when others are doing so, even if they are outside what they might ‘normally’ do? We learn simply by observing the actions of others. Children, for example, are often seen to imitate the behavior and expressions of their parents, or care givers.
When someone role models good behavior to us, and we see the impact it has, it can lead us to make similar decisions and adopt the same habits. We want to encourage the knowledge sharing and role modelling that supports good decision making and the best way to do that is through social learning among peers but also via the message ‘from the top’.
Social connection can be a powerful learning aide. Putting people into groups to work together and challenge each other means we can
- be exposed to different perspectives
- learn how to negotiate
- improve our vocabulary
- leverage the talents of our peers
- impart our own wisdom.
A theory known as the Propinquity Theory (propinquity = nearness) was traditionally understood to mean that people affiliate more with others if they are spatially or geographically closer.
This may be true, but in post Covid times, relying on this isn’t always an option. Those ‘water cooler’ moments are still, for many, not possible, or desired, as we continue to adapt to working from home or hybrid working patterns.
We can connect via social networks (e.g., Microsoft Teams or equivalent) which put us into groups where we have shared interests, beliefs, job roles and personal situations.
Achieving this connection is harder in virtual times – less happens organically than it does in person. Facilitation may be necessary to begin with to get things off to a good start.
We recently enjoyed collaborating with BP on an award winning learning program for their Operational Leaders which has social learning and a community focus at its core. The judges said the program:
“demonstrated the vision, agility and innovation needed to excel in the unchartered hybrid work environment.”
Use learning analytics to support social learning
As well as supporting clients to build in social interactions for their learners, we also use Kineo Analytics to enable people to compare their own responses to questions with others and enable that social comparison online.
This can help learners to change perspectives, better understand their peers, and work towards a collective mission and shared values as a team.
The liking principle
Another powerful and persuasive piece of theory to have up your sleeve when designing learning is the ‘liking principle’.
People are more likely to do what you want them to do, when they like, or feel they have something in common with, the person making the request.
We are led by example. If we admire and respect our leaders, we are likely to follow suit. So that reinforces why it’s so important for an organization to speak the same language as their employees: to show they have the same ethics and values as they do.
But that only works if the culture connects the employees with each other and the higher strata of the organization. If they’re not trusted or respected, it doesn’t matter if a CEO or someone on the board emails or speaks to everyone about a subject on a regular basis: it won’t have the desired impact. It must ring true and be demonstrated publicly, at every turn.
Connect through your leaders personally
We can’t necessarily change our leaders, of course, but our leaders can change how, why and what we learn. You need to know your employees and understand what will resonate with them.
This is what made Herb Kelleher so influential. He connected with his staff at Southwest Airlines, through a few simple practices:
- Saying a simple ‘hello’
- Being approachable
- Showing interest
- Not distinguishing between role and status
- Hiring for attitude rather than skill
This is what makes a leader.
When designing learning that features leaders, showcase them in their most human and approachable self. Perhaps even show them doing up their tie, preparing for the shoot or talking ‘off the cuff’ before they think the cameras are rolling. Ask those working closely with them to reveal a few personal insights that people may otherwise not get to know.
You don’t have to go for the most obvious leaders either, such as the CEO. Find leaders who are perhaps the most skilled or passionate about a subject – people who will reach most of the audience – to really drive forward that connectivity and desire to change.
Bringing it all together
By keeping up to date with neuroscience and learning psychology, we can keep evolving what we define as best practice and how we design for learners today.
Adapting the tried and tested learning theories that we know work to push our learning design further and generate even better results.
We have only begun to scratch the surface of how we can use neuroscience and psychology to determine the shape of our learning programs and strategies.
We are always happy to talk to you more about the science of learning and how we can help you use these ideas to create better learning experiences for your people and business.
Get in touch with us today and for a chat!