What can neuroscientific research teach us about effective training?

Dr James Gupta looks at training from a neuroscience perspective.

Anyone who has ever delivered or received training knows that there’s a vast difference between an engaged and an unengaged learner. Fortunately, the growing field of memory science suggests some simple ways we can take advantage of how the brain works, to make training more engaging and effective.

Here are three proven, actionable ideas you can consider implementing:

  • Space it out

The brain is not a video camera, it can’t simply record everything that happens in a day – there would be far too much information to process, and most of it would be completely useless (do you need to know what you ate for breakfast two weeks ago, or which song was playing in the last taxi you were in?).

In fact, the brain processes so much information that it is much more akin to a highly sophisticated filter than a recording device, having evolved to prioritise important information. How does the brain determine what’s important? Well, one simple way is how regularly we see it. The more often we encounter a piece of information, the more likely we are to remember it.

‘spaced retrieval’ is an idea originally postulated in the 1800s and since demonstrated in many scientific studies, which states that there are in fact optimum intervals to revisit a particular topic to optimise long term retention and understanding.

Source: Mindbursts

This idea is demonstrated in the graph above – when we first learn something, we forget almost all of it within a few days. However, when the information is reviewed at increasing intervals, the long-term retention is significantly higher.

The implications of this are clear: it’s not enough to simply deliver training once and then expect staff to have taken everything onboard. Training needs to be delivered and then reviewed periodically if it is to have a lasting impact on people’s knowledge and behaviour.

  • Break training into small chunks

Long-term memory is practically infinite, but unfortunately short-term memory can only hold about seven pieces of information at any given time. To effectively commit something to long-term memory, it needs to be broken down into small chunks which can be held in short-term memory, and consolidated later on.

Consolidation is an important part of the learning process, and it seems to mostly occur when we are not actively engaged with a task. This is why people often have their ‘eureka!’ moments in the shower, and why we have the phrase ‘sleep on it’.

When we are not actively working on a problem, our brain is still working in the background, consolidating and organising information so that it can be reliably recalled in future. What’s more, we have a limited concentration span of around 20 minutes, and evidence suggests that this is decreasing thanks to the Internet.


Source:Be Brain Fit

So, training that can be split up and broken down into short sessions is likely to be far more effective. People will be fully focused, engaged and able to consolidate more of what they learn.

Traditionally, this has presented a logistical challenge – whilst the ‘psychologically optimum’ length of a training session may be 10 minutes, logistically and practically speaking, this isn’t always possible – especially for face to face training.

However, newer technologies and in particular mobile training apps have made it easier for people to engage with short, regular training sessions wherever they are.

  • Incorporate active learning

Learning is much more impactful when people are actively engaged, rather than just absorbing the information passively. The key is to actively challenge your brain – it responds by building new circuits and strengthening existing ones, so that the next time it has to recall information, it is less challenging.

Learning in this way produces lasting changes in brain structure which can be seen on MRI scans. There are lots of ways to promote active learning, such as incorporating activities into workshops, or asking questions in distance learning materials.

Bringing it together

In summary – incorporating memory science into training delivery helps maximise engagement with employee training and deliver better outcomes. Supported by new learning technologies that incorporate this research, it’s easier than ever before to use these methods alongside traditional training techniques at scale.


About the author

Dr. James Gupta is the Founder and CEO of Synap.



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