Neuroscientists study the brain and its impact on behaviour and thinking functions, including how we learn. This is an area of constant development, and what we do know is much less than what we are still finding out! While this is a huge area of science, there are some helpful tips that we can apply as trainers to help make sure learning is meaningful and ‘sticks’ in learner’s brains.
Meet the needs of the brain
The brain is an organ. It needs to be looked after. The brain won’t learn best unless you are hydrated, rested, fed, getting a good blood supply, and not too stressed. Learning and creating memories consumes physical resources such as glucose, with our brains using this quickly with more intense learning.
- Encourage learners to stay hydrated
- Use the natural environment – fresh air is great for enhancing learning
- Encourage learners to get enough sleep
- Have brain friendly snacks (great news: Dark Chocolate is good!)
- Take a moment for learners to consciously let go of other life stressors and to focus on the training session
- Include physical movement and activity. It raises the brain chemicals needed for thinking, focus and memory
Make meaning and connections
The brain is a network. The more connections made to existing understandings and meanings, the stronger the link to new learning created.
- Help make it clear how learning links to the learner personally
- Always link what learners already know to what you are covering
Manage and encourage emotion
The mood and emotions brought to a training session impacts motivation and learning. When learners are faced with something they don’t want to do, pain centers in their brain will light up. Many learners initial reaction from this is to avoid the feeling by putting things off. Heightened emotions during an experience also increases (positive and negative) memories.
- Set the tone from the start – ensure joining instructions are positive and relevant
- Choose your language carefully – positively frame training activities and content
- Make training memorable or exciting – this arouses curiosity but also raises emotions and therefore enhances memory
- If there is something learners are avoiding or don’t want to do (and you can’t help make it more enjoyable for them!) set a timer to focus and complete the activity and then take a 5-minute break. It’s a lot easier to start something when it is only for a short, fixed duration
Not a new concept to most trainers, but it also fits with neuroscience! Increasing the variety of inputs makes learning richer, stronger and more interesting. It also supports different preferences of learners.
- Experiment presenting information with a variety of different media – flip chart, social media, video, handouts – and keep it simple!
- Use colours, drawings (you don’t need to be great at it) and frames to create visual references of content learned. Refer back to it during training
- Use props. Find ways for learners to interact with things – touch, feel and be active in activities
- While many of us have the Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic down pat, what about considering the effects of Olfactory and Gustatory (smell and taste) on learning and memory
- Look at models, like Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences or De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats. See if this would suit your style and could be included in activities
- Consider the role of video in learning. Highlighted in 2017 as a learning trend, video can support pre-course learning, post course information and revision, and allow feedback on learner performance during training activities
Take brain breaks
New evidence suggests the value of teaching content in even smaller chunk sizes. Learners can only hold two to four chunks in their working memory. If you try to cram in too much in a training session, learners simply wont remember most of it.
- As a guide, the less background the learner has and the greater the complexity of the content, make the time chunk of content shorter (4-8 minutes). The greater the background knowledge, the less the complexity, then the longer you can make the “input”(8-15 min)
- Buy a timer, or use your phone. Get into a habit of always using it with the timer set to 15 minutes. When your time is up, you need to let learners stop for a brain break or change activities
- Build in Breaks – they are as important as the activities to help consolidate learning
- Stock up on “brain break” activities – check out Brain Gym and do a little research
- Include state changers that allow a quick movement or focus change to give brains a chance to rest and re-energise
Revise learning to make it stick
Effective reviewing of content is how to make learning stick. In fact, to really help learners review it seven times to truly embed the learning! While a lot of learning doesn’t consist of memorising facts, it is still a part of it. Spaced repetition is the best help we can give for this.
- Questionnaires & Quizzes – Come up with creative ways for learners to demonstrate and review their learning
- Include opportunities for learners to demonstrate what they have learnt – it will help them embed their learning
- Use spaced repetition during training – as a rule of thumb, revise the concept at the following time points after first learning: 2 hours, 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months
Remember the brain needs a social life
Research shows that social conditions influence our brain in multiple ways we never knew before. Learning in many settings is often a highly social experience, with learning being affected by our sense of reward, acceptance, pleasure, coherence and stress. Learning in isolation or poor social conditions can actually result in fewer brain connections being made.
- Ensure chances to discuss ideas with others, and for personal reflection time
- Use planned groupings – consider buddy systems, mixed skill sets. Don’t rely on random or purely social groupings for more than 20% of the training time
- Work to create good social conditions in the training group – build relationships between you and the learners, and between the learner
If you are already applying strategies to improve your training, you may be implementing many of these ideas already! If you aren’t there yet, remember – even if you only have time and energy to tweak just one thing about the way you train, it can make a difference and help get brains into states which will support learning.