Tapping into the brain to deliver effective training

Shanida Nataraja explains some concepts around how people learn, which can help in the design of effective and memorable training programmes that will nurture talent.

Our brains are biosupercomputers. We are hardwired to be able to constantly refine our behaviour and thinking, change the way in which we perceive and react to our experiences, and regulate our emotions.

I am passionate about the cognitive science behind learning and memory, and strive to design training programmes that use cognitive insights to make the learning experience more impactful, memorable and efficient. Whether this involves applying an understanding of adult learning styles to designing agendas, or using specific exercises to activate specific cognitive processes, this approach delivers results and promotes participant engagement throughout the training event.

This article identifies three core concepts that shed some light on how we learn new things and how, therefore, training programmes should be designed to optimise their impact.

Neural plasticity

In 1890, the renowned psychologist William James described humans as ‘mere bundles of habits’. He suggested that all humans acquire behavioural habits through learning in early life, and that these habits automate behaviour in adulthood. This means that the majority of the tasks of daily living – from making a cup of coffee to driving to work – are done ‘without thinking’. So how do we learn these habits?

The brain has been designed to encode our behaviour as if it were ‘set in stone’ – once we learn as a child to ride a bike, we never forget. However, it has also been designed to erase this information and replace it with new behaviour when necessary. Our brain is composed of groups of interconnected brain cells or networks; each network is involved in planning and executing a particular task. Connections between our brain cells can be strengthened or weakened, much like the way the volume on a sound system can be turned up or down by moving the volume dial.

Within each network, when brain cells frequently communicate with each other, the connections between them become strengthened. It usually takes very few repetitions of a task before we start to do the task ‘without thinking’. The connections become stronger, so that not only do we complete the task more quickly, but we also do so with minimal thought or effort. The wiring of our brain takes on an imprint of the task. Should a new method be used to perform the same task, new brain cells will be recruited and old brain cells decommissioned, the old imprint erased and a new imprint formed.

This flexible, malleable quality of the brain is referred to as neural or brain plasticity. Every new experience, every incoming stimulus, brings about a change in our brain’s configuration – our hardwiring. The plasticity underlies learning and memory, and is a key to unravelling some of the mysteries of human behaviour.

 

“We can continue to learn new things and adapt our behaviour, perceptions and emotions even up to the day we die”

 

 

The myth that a new habit can be created in 21 days has been debunked, and evidence from researchers at University College London suggests that it can take between 2 and 8 months to embed a new habit; however, the upshot of neural plasticity is that we can continue to learn new things and adapt our behaviour, perceptions and emotions even up to the day we die.

Impact on how training should be delivered: repetition, repetition, repetition is the key to effective training. Not only should key concepts be presented repeatedly in training sessions, in slightly different ways, but it is also important to give participants the opportunity to put into practice what they have learned, so they can fully embed the new behaviour.

The cognitive operators

In the early 21st century, the neuroscientists Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg put forward the theory that the human mind was composed of seven processing units, called cognitive operators. Each of these represents a specific function of the mind and, collectively, they allow us to interpret and assign emotional significance to our experiences.

The holistic operator produces the ‘big picture’, the ability to see how objects or experiences fit into a wider context, such as the architectural theme of a building. The reductionist operator allows us to dissect problems or objects into their component pieces, and analyse them in a rational, logical and sequential fashion. The causal operator identifies the cause of a particular experience or series of events, and is responsible, at least in part, for our drive to understand why things happen.

The abstractive operator generates abstract concepts, such as ‘an orange and a pineapple are both fruit’, and allows us to suggest a way in which two pieces of information are related, assembling these pieces of information into a complete theory that explains their relationship. The binary operator allows us to make sense of our world by dividing it into pairs of opposing concepts, such as light/dark, good/evil and inside/outside. The quantitative operator, as the name suggests, allows us to define objects in terms of their quantity. The emotional value operator assigns emotional significance to a particular event.

Most of us have all seven of these cognitive operators, and there is evidence that at least some of them are pre-programmed into the circuitry of the developing brain: humans are thus hardwired to perform these particular cognitive functions and thus derive meaning from our experiences within the world.

 

“Training should be designed to trigger the appropriate cognitive operators”

 

 

Impact on how training should be delivered: training should be designed to trigger the appropriate cognitive operators; the learner should be:

– Given information to help them understand the big picture of what they are trying to achieve

– Presented with a process that breaks down the task at hand into easy-to-digest chunks

– Provided with an explanation of why they are at the training in the first place and why a presented process or tool works

– Shown how separate concepts or tools can be abstractly categorised to aid retention, such as a mnemonic device to remember a series of process steps

– Given lists that detail positive and negative attributes, dos and don’ts, things to remember and things to avoid

– Provided with the means of measuring or quantifying performance, impact of training and successful implementation of tools and strategies

– And, most importantly, emotionally engaged in the training process and having fun, as you are more likely to remember training that you have enjoyed.

The power of intention and attention

Intention is the conscious will to behave in a particular way and attention is the conscious focusing of awareness in order to perform the intended behaviour.

Intention

The fundamental principle of any training is that the person receiving the training must want to be there, and must recognise that there is a need for them to work on specific skills or expand their knowledge base on a particular topic. This is easy if the training is voluntary, of course, but in many cases individuals may have been encouraged to attend training by their managers or other work colleagues and therefore may not intrinsically see the need.

This can be addressed in two main ways: first, it is recommended that participants are asked to think about what they are hoping to gain from the training before the session, so that personal learning objectives can be developed; second, each element of a training session should be clearly linked with specific learning objectives, so participants are clear when their personal learning needs are going to be addressed.

Attention

Attention and awareness can be considered to be tightly linked: one is aware of what one is attentive to. Brain cells in an area of the brain called the thalamus are thought to focus our attention, in much the same way as we might use a searchlight on a dark night. As we shine the beam of light on one object or another, we become aware of each of these objects in turn. If attention is combined with intention, this scan of the environment might prompt us to walk over and examine one of the objects or, during a training session, it leads to sustained attention, even in the presence of distractions. Sustaining attention is dependent on a number of different factors, including:

Variety

Mixing plenaries with breakout group sessions of a more practical nature, such as Q&A sessions with key speakers, discussion forums in which to share knowledge and best practices, and interactive features – such as electronic voting or talking-head videos – is recommended. Not only do these different formats help embed learning into individuals with different adult learning styles, but it also means that participants remain engaged, and contribute to the learning process, instead of merely being a receptacle for ‘push’ communications.

Taking a break

On average, people can sustain attention effectively for 20 minutes, after which they become distracted or restless. Although it is often tempting to pack a lot of content into a training agenda, this is counterproductive. Encouraging attendees to get up and network with other participants over a coffee will mean they approach the next session with increased focus and enthusiasm.

Impact on how training should be delivered: don’t assume that just because someone is in a training session, they want to be there or they see the value of the training; tailoring content to meet a participant’s individual learning objectives, as assessed through a pre-training survey, grabbing attention from the outset and holding that attention by delivering content through different formats, is essential for an impactful training session.

About the author:

Shanida Nataraja is a director at Axon Communications. During her 14 years in the healthcare communication industry, she has gained experience in a wide range of communication activities across therapeutic areas including oncology, cardiology, intensive care medicine, diabetes, urology, and mental health.

She holds a BSc in human science and neuroscience, plus a PhD and two years of postdoctoral research into the neurophysiological basis of learning and memory.

Read more from Shanida Nataraja:

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