With more to learn than ever, faster innovation cycles, and reduced training budgets, organizations everywhere are trying to get more from their learning programs. However, to increase the effectiveness of learning, some of our intuitive understanding about learning may need updating. For example, while people generally predict that concentrated learning in one block of time is more effective, neuroscience research is clearly showing that it is far better to break up learning interventions to facilitate successful long-term learning.
This training module outlines recent findings from neuroscience research about how we learn, and how to optimize the formation of memory. These findings have been summarized into a four-part model for how to make learning stick: this is Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing, which is represented here as the AGES model.
Increased organizational change is increasing pressure on learning. Every new product, distribution model, partnership, or organizational structure comes with new information and processes to remember. As well as having more to learn than ever, there is less time to learn it in, driven by a desire to get to market quickly. Then there is the challenge of the nature of work itself, where distractions and multi-tasking inhibit the ability to focus sufficiently to learn something new. Finally, budgets for learning today are under significant pressure. In short, the pressure is on for employees to learn more, faster, under tougher conditions, and within tight budgets. One outcome of these forces is simply shorter training programs. Training programs that used to be run over two or three days are now run in half a day, and a significant number of organizations are shifting training from a formal company-driven approach towards more social and informal learning methods (Bersin & Associates, 2011). Yet our ability to absorb new ideas is not dissimilar to our capacity to absorb food: there are physical limits to the digestion of both. To try to address this, more learning is being pushed to ‘pre-work’, in the hope that participants arrive at a training program already knowledgeable about core ideas. This works only partially due to the mixed level of focus people give to a pre-reading.
In summary, learning managers are attempting to evolve their learning offerings to meet the changed environment and needs. Yet, by and large, they are doing so based on guesswork, without a good theory to inform their experimentation.
In the workplace much learning is declarative, or explicit learning, meaning information that needs to be recalled (Davachi & Dobbins, 2008). This kind of learning involves encoding information in the brain sufficiently well for easy retrieval. In any learning experience, whether learning a new product description or organizational chart, a key outcome of the experience is that information is remembered and can be recalled easily. Neuroscientists have discovered that the level of activation of a brain region called the hippocampus during an encoding task plays a significant role in whether people can recall what they learned (Davachi & Wagner, 2002). Many studies (e.g., Davachi & Wagner, 2002; Lepage, Habib & Tulving, 1998) have since been undertaken that explore the types of activities that do and don’t activate the hippocampus. This new understanding of the biology of learning is providing rich insights into how we can more efficiently create long-term memories as part of a learning experience.
A number of surprises have emerged from this thread of research. It turns out that some of our long-held assumptions about learning, such as the importance of repetition, are incorrect. We have also begun to recognize the importance of overlooked factors in learning, such as the significant impact of spacing out a learning activity. This training draws together recent findings about memory formation into one easy-to-remember model, called AGES. This stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion, and Spacing. These four variables may be the key to maximizing learning interventions. With just the right amount of attention, generation, emotion, and spacing, learners intensely activate their hippocampus, which creates deep circuits for easy retrieval. This model can help learning designers improve their learning initiatives by focusing on, and experimenting with, the key variables to effective learning.
For the hippocampus to activate sufficiently for learning to occur, the learner needs to be paying full attention to the topic being learned. In a world with so many distractions (e.g. phones and other devices), this is easier said than done. Dividing attention between two tasks significantly decreases the quality of attention, and the likely sustainability of any learning, because the hippocampus is not engaged when attention is divided (Kensinger et al., 2003).
Information is not expressly stored in the hippocampus as discrete memories like in a hard drive. Instead, memories are made up of vast webs of data from across the brain all linked together (Davachi & Dobbins, 2008). The more associations (or in other words, entry points linked to the original information) connected to a memory, the thicker the web is, and, therefore, the easier it is to find a memory later. The hippocampus activates when we create these associations.
Learning happens in many complex layers, with emotion being one of the more important regulators of learning and memory formation. Studies show that the correlation of vividness of a memory, and the emotionality of the original event is around 0.9 (Jensen, 2005). The way in which emotion is thought to enhance memory is twofold. First, emotional content is thought to grab the attention of the individual, and, hence, help to focus attention on the emotional event or stimulus (LeDoux, 1994; Damasio, 1994). Second, it is known that emotion leads to activation of a brain structure called the amygdala which sits directly in front of the hippocampus and can help to signal to the hippocampus that a particular event is salient, and, thus, increase the effectiveness of encoding (Ochsner, 2000; Cahill et al., 1994). When looking into current professional training design, emotions are a common tool used in behavioral change programs, such as leadership trainings (Kiefer, 2009).
It has been known for some time that distributing learning over time is better than cramming learning into one long study session (Crowder, 1976). Distributing learning over time leads to better long-term memory, which is the ultimate aim of organizational learning. Spacing information over time leads to higher retrieval rates of new information and seems to build stronger long-term memory (Litman & Davachi, 2008).
At the end of this session, participants will be able to: (not limited to)
- Describe the characteristics of learning
- Identify the key components of the AGES model
- Discuss the features associated with the AGES model
- Apply practical skills to assist with the learning process