Feel the rhythm of learning

Adam Beard explains how the application of neuroscience to learning is improving learner outcomes.

Circadian rhythms are a hot topic. Will changing the times of the school day help the learning process? The evidence so far says yes, and more research is being done to understand the impact of circadian rhythms, our body clock, on our ability to learn. At the forefront of this research is Dr Paul Kelley, Research Fellow at Oxford University.

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But does the impact of circadian rhythms start and stop at the school gate or do they have significance in other aspects of our life? And, are circadian rhythms the only application of physiological and neurological factors that can aid learning?

Circadian rhythms make us tick. They may change as we get older but their impact remains the same; there are optimal times of the day to work or learn.

So, whether it is the ability to concentrate in the classroom or the ability to be more productive at work, circadian rhythms have a role to play and business, as well as academia, should evaluate the potential impact that the understanding of circadian rhythms and the changing of working practises to reflect them could have.

Better concentration leads to greater productivity and learning outcomes.

But the physiological and the neurological has more to offer to both the classroom and the boardroom and Kelley’s research has embraced both.

Kelley is not just an authority on circadian rhythms, he is also a pioneer in another neuroscience based learning initiative, Spaced Learning. This is a teaching methodology based upon the neuroscience of how the brain encodes long-term as opposed to the short-term memory. Kelley developed the practical application of that neuroscience and was the first to apply it in the classroom, initially with both GCSE and A level students.

The results were startling. Approximately 23 hours of traditional classroom learning was compressed into an hour of Spaced Learning and the students who only received the single Spaced Learning lesson did as well, or better, in exams than those who had been taught the full subject course in the traditional way.

How and why does Spaced Learning work? 
Traditional teaching methodologies address the short term memory and conscious mind. And, short term memory degrades which is why you can sit in a lesson and understand what you are being taught but come to apply it a few days later and find you can’t.

Spaced Learning addresses the long term memory so there is no degradation of the learning. 
So how does it work? Simply put, there are two elements to generating enhanced learning outcomes using this method.

The first is repetition. Repetition helps the brain decide what information is important and therefore worth embedding in the long term memory. 

The second is the length of the gaps, or spaces, between those repetitions; the length of the space is key. And, during those ‘spaces’ the brain has to be distracted from the learning task at hand to create three distinct learning periods. These ‘spaces’ help the brain start to encode information in the long term memory; they provide the ‘space’ for the chemical process to take place.

So the basic structure of Spaced Learning is learn, rest, learn, rest, learn.

“There are a number as aspects to Spaced Learning that are counterintuitive” explains Kelly. “If you taught students by traditional methods in the morning and tested them in the afternoon they might well perform as well as those taught by Spaced Learning.

That’s because short term memory and long-term memory are very much alike for a day or two. But test them a week later, and long term memory would be consolidated – much stronger – while short term memories are likely to fade. The recall of the Spaced Learner would have improved whilst that of the traditional learner would have degraded. The Spaced Learners memory would have improved with time.”

Kelley recognised that this methodology could also have applications in the business world but, being an active educationalist and academic, did not have the capacity to explore the possibility. He continued his development of Spaced Learning alongside his circadian rhythm research.

Back in 2010 one of the articles written about Kelley’s work was read by Simon Strong, a partner in an innovations consultancy called Human Zoo. He was fascinated by Spaced Learning and intuitively understood how and why it worked.

As an expert in human behaviour, a facilitator and trainer Strong wanted to apply it to the corporate world but the problem was how best to do so.

Move forward four years and Strong, along with business partner Adam Beard, moved away from consulting and began developing their own innovations. Spaced Learning became the focus of one of their developments and a vision of how Kelley’s method could be digitised, scaled and commercialised takes shape.

In early 2015 Strong approached Kelley to run their ideas past him and ask if he’d like to work with them to develop the concept further. Kelley explains “Simon and Adam are exceptional as entrepreneurs, seeing how to translate research into business reality. They totally understood how Spaced Learning worked and their idea of how to productise it was so simple but quite inspired”.
Kelley immediately agreed to work with the Human Zoo team on the product now known as Download™ but at this point the project took on a life of its own.

Human Zoo had a close relationship with the University of Surrey Business School. The Business School were conscious that students, with access to online resources unavailable only a decade earlier, were studying in different ways and wanted to understand how best to optimise their teaching methods to reflect this.

Professor Andy Adcroft, now Head of the Business School, proposed a piece of research to test the effectiveness of traditional lecture based learning against guided self-learning and asked Human Zoo if they would be prepared to test Download as a third methodology?

“We had defined what Download would look like and how it would work but we hadn’t created a module at that point. It was all still theory” explains Strong, “but we could not turn down the opportunity to take part in an independent 600 student study (the largest of its type ever conducted).”

The research looked at multiple aspects of learning but two of the key aspects were knowledge acquisition (what the student learnt) and knowledge application (their ability to apply what they learnt). The rules and regulations surrounding controversial advertising and their application were the chosen subject for the test. 

It provided a subject that had regulatory framework, a distinct right and wrong which made testing knowledge acquisition easy. Case studies then provided the context for knowledge application.

If the newly developed programme performed badly in the test its development as a credible L&D product would probably have been over but if it performed well the concept would be validated.

The module created for the test had to be put together quickly and had a number of flaws in it which was not ideal.  As Beard recalls, “We walked into the first Download session, looked around and realised that 50 per cent of the students were foreign, English was not their first language. We had not factored that in at all.”

But flawed or not the results were as convincing as those Paul Kelley had achieved in his smaller scale research. Download learners acquired 20 per cent more knowledge than traditional learners, 23 per cent more than directed learners and 36 per cent more knowledge than independent learners.

In terms of knowledge application these learners were 13 per cent better at applying knowledge than traditional learners, 19 per cent better than directed learners and 25 per cent better than independent learners.

Strong, Beard and Kelley have now formed Download Learning Ltd and Patented multiple aspects of Download. The University of Surrey Business School was their first customer and they are engaged with a raft of national and international companies who can see the impact that Download could have on their learning and development programmes.

‘There is a certain irony in Surrey becoming our first client’ say Beard. ‘When we first got together with Paul he recommended that we concentrate on the corporate sector as it would take years to get Download accepted by the academic world. It’s good to know even Paul is wrong occasionally.’

Download modules contain both the three learning inputs and the distraction activities. They are created utilising animation, annotation and voice over and the three learning inputs deliver the information in three different formats proving both the core knowledge and the context for that knowledge.

Strong explains more. “Download has been designed to address different learning styles. The use of audio and visual mnemonics further aids learning outcome and the animation style is designed to deliver better engagement.

The pace of the modules is quick and surprises people at first but we are dealing with the long term memory and the subconscious mind which processes infinitely faster than the short term memory. You find yourself thinking, ‘I’ll never take this in, but you do.”

But the team believe that the benefits of Download could go well beyond the direct benefits improved learning outcomes. “Obviously Download is only one part of the learning solution but it has the potential to help facilitate other aspects” explains Strong.

“For example, 70-20-10 has been around since the 90’s but although many people subscribe to the theory it is difficult to put into practise. Businesses are concerned about the consequences of the potential mistakes that may arise from learning on the job.

And, if training, or mentoring are to be provided on the job then this places a potential burden on those tasked with providing such support. If, however, you could quickly and effectively embed the foundation knowledge that the employee needed to fulfil their role, provide the core competencies, then the role of the mentor would be that much easier.”

This opportunity has particularly resonated with those tasked with running graduate schemes where the challenge is to turn a raw recruit into a productive member of staff as quickly as possible.

Similarly, Download can also free up teachers and lecturers to explore their subjects more fully and concentrate on inspiring rather than simply imparting knowledge. Beard expands on the point.

“If a teachers was able to deliver a module on a subject in the first lesson of the term that provided all the core knowledge, for example, all dates, characters and events associated with a specific history topic, then they could spend the rest of the term exploring the subject, bringing it to life rather than worrying whether they had covered off all the aspects of the curriculum, which would have been delivered by the module. Imagine the freedom that could deliver and the fun that could be had.”

And so we come full circle, back to circadian rhythms, because the Download team have an even greater vision.

“Imagine being able to plot the circadian rhythm of an individual learner, identify the optimum time for them to learn and then use Download. That should enhance learning outcomes still further” says Beard. “Well we know how to do that and it’s the next development for Download.”

Is learning about to move to a different beat? It rather looks that way. 


About the author 

Adam Beard is Managing Partner at Download Learning Ltd and can be contacted at adam@downloadlearning.ltd.uk.



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