Patricia Riddell, explores how learning can be improved by an understanding of how the brain works.
Learning and development (L&D) professionals need to carefully consider the role of memory when planning. An awareness of how the brain remembers information can help enormously when designing programmes to help people learn best.
Learning and memory are intertwined. Indeed, the function of learning is to put information into memory so that it can be accessed when required at a later date. However, key questions for L&D experts to consider are: what does the brain store and how does it do this?
Memories are stored in a similar way to an address book, which tells the brain where to find the memory. The pathway to these memories depends on what neurons are firing at the time the information is first received. Therefore, for information to be easily recalled, many areas of the brain should be activated during learning, so that the link to a particular memory can be more easily accessed.
Sensory links can be incorporated into learning by providing information with a memorable visual or auditory tag. For example, introducing music, moving or static images or light effects into programmes can all help to bring learning to life and increase its ease of access later. L&D professionals can tap into this by encouraging learners to link to their own experiences, be it those in the workplace or outside the office. This will then create a more powerful recollection that is unique to the individual.
Memory is not fixed forever, but can be built on and added to over time. L&D professionals often will start with the familiar and then move to the new. This works well since a memory is much easier to acquire if it is attached to an existing memory.
Another important aspect of memory is emotion, which plays a crucial role in the process of remembering. For most people, their most memorable moments will be those with the strongest emotional content. When recalling these memories, we immediately remember how we felt at the time. Adding emotion to learning can therefore be an effective route to take, and trainers can tap into emotions – such as laughter – to help cement the learning process. When used successfully, comedy can improve performance by reducing anxiety, boosting participation and increasing the learner’s motivation to focus on the material.
There is much discussion about the need to make learning ‘sticky’ and this remains a crucial consideration for learning providers. When looking at how children retain information, compared to adults, there is a marked contrast.
When children are taught something, they are often coming across the idea or fact for the first time – the information is therefore not competing with already existing memories. With adults, however, learning is very much a two stage process. First of all, they are taught something new. Secondly, they need to recognise and revise any patterns of behaviour that may exist around that piece of information in order for the new memory to replace the old. People and organisations have habits, some of which they may be aware of, others they may not. The challenge is to identify these habits and amend them to incorporate the new learning.
One example would be in management development. New managers in the making may have picked up traits from others in their organisation which then become ingrained in their own activities. Recognising these habits and replacing them with fresh behaviour is vital.
Once a memory has been created, the process of consolidation – transferring into the long term memory – begins. Repeating information is one way to retain it in the short term memory and transfer it into long term memory. This view fits with our instinct that if we want to remember something like a phone number, we say it to ourselves again and again in the hope that it ‘sticks’. In fact, the more an item is rehearsed, the greater the likelihood of retention over the long term. However, there are more interesting ways to make memory stick.
Memory is a creative, fallible process, highly prone to suggestion and other distorting influences. Therefore, when learning, it is important to regularly review information to prevent forgetting and increase clarity. In this way, memory becomes stronger with each recall. L&D professionals should ensure learners are given the opportunity to put their learning into practice very soon after the learning. This therefore prompts them to recall the memory and build on it by the very action of applying the piece of learning to their work.
Memory can sometimes fail us, but they are ways to harness it to ensure learning remains sticky and can be recalled not just in the short term but also in the long term.
Patricia Riddell, Reading University, is a professor in applied neuroscience in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading. She specialises in the ways in which research in neuroscience can be applied in the real world, supporting and extending our understanding of human behaviour.
Patricia will be discussing ‘How the brain learns’ at the World of Learning conference at 11.15am on 1 October at the NEC, Birmingham.
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