How do we learn?

Lucy Standing, Head of Training at the Association for Business Psychology and founder of neuTrain, looks at the psychology behind learning:

Why does taking notes help us remember what has been said in a lecture? Are you more likely to
remember the detail of a course studied – or how you felt about it? Why are we motivated to remember some things more than others and how is it we can seem to learn quite well one day – but not another?

It would be a mistake to say we know all the answers, but psychologists, and learning professionals are uncovering more information about how we learn. There are hundreds of factors which affect how we learn; this article will focus on three of the main ones over which we – as learning designers, have some control:

  • Engagement

For learning to be effective, we aim to engage the parts of the brain which will be required when the training is transferred to a target situation. The target situation is key here: if our objective is to share fact, this can be presented as text. But if we want that fact to be recalled in an exam
situation, the mere act of taking notes will significantly and reliably increase the amount of information which is accurately recalled. The physicality of placing the text on a page, the imagery of the notes helps to provide triggers which aid the ability to recall information. If we want to teach someone how to drive a car, there is no substitute for getting behind the wheel and ‘doing’ it as this allows our brains to synthesize a multitude of different sensory factors: “yikes, I over steered there – I’ll correct that for the next corner”.

It is through this engagement and feedback that we improve our performance. If you’ve ever walked down a street and caught a whiff of something which has transported you back to a forgotten memory, then you’ll understand first-hand how different parts of your brain were engaged at a time that that forgotten memory was formed.

  • Getting Emotional

How we feel about what we’re learning is one of the strongest predictors which affects learning outcomes. Negative emotions are generally speaking the most powerful. How many times do you have to repeat a phone number before it is remembered? Compare that to how many times you’ve repeatedly touched a hot oven door. We fear pain, so we quickly learn to avoid it. However – applying pain as a learning designer is not very practical or ethical! Negative emotions do however have their place if the need is to get people to avoid dangerous or harmful behaviours: this accounts for TV adverts trying to shock us into driving within speed limits.

In many cases, we’re trying to get people to try or do something differently. In those sorts of scenarios, positive emotions are more constructive. It can ‘feel’ strange and awkward to try a new sales technique – but if people learn in a supportive, constructive environment, the associations are more likely to be positive and conducive to behaviour change.

  • How on earth has any of this got anything to do with me or my job?

Closely associated with our motivation to learn is its perceived relevance. Mary Jalongo wrote a brilliant review paper on early years education in the US. She cites research demonstrating the positive impact individual teachers can have by relating content to the learners to give it more meaning. For example, instead of saying ‘c is for cat’, a teacher will be more effective if they ask questions like ‘who here in this classroom has a name beginning with C’? ‘Who here has seen an animal beginning with C?’ By bringing the memories already in existence into the learning experience the teacher is utilising existing neural connections.

As adults, the more we can build meaning for individuals into the learning situation, the more the delegates will see the relevance and importance of that learning. Tailoring content to individuals may be considered a luxury but for improved understanding and retention it is necessary.

I remember a quote which used to be on the walls of the computer lab where I studied. It said: ‘if the human brain was simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it’. We’ll never be able to design learning interventions which guarantee 100% retention: but we already know a lot about how learning happens – the trick is using what we know more effectively.

Lucy Standing

About the author

Lucy is a Chartered Business Psychologist and Associate fellow of the British psychological Society. She is Head of Training at the Association for Business Psychology. She voluntarily runs neuTrain – a not for profit website which freely shares training materials (slides and trainers notes) from members of the Learning and Development profession and she also works on a freelance consultancy basis.

Twitter: @neutrain