How Brain Science is Driving the Evolution of Corporate Learning


A few weeks ago, we gave you a sneak peak into one of the responses we planned to share at our ATD Conference panel discussion on May 17, entitled Brain Science and the Evolution of Corporate Learning. The panel included Dr. Alice Kim—Research Associate at York University and the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, Jackie Morton—Manager, People Potential at Lululemon Athletica and me, Carol Leaman—CEO of Axonify.

You may recall that we also promised to summarize the additional Q&As after the event, in case you couldn’t attend. So, here they are!

  1. What has led to the explosion of learning and memory research over the last decade?

Dr. Alice Kim:

A lot of the recent work on learning and memory has been made possible by learning technology, specifically neuroimaging techniques that allow scientists to record images of brain activity while people are performing certain tasks. An example of this is FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

  1. Can you summarize the top 3 findings that have come out of this research?

Dr. Alice Kim:

The first one is something called the spacing effect. It refers to the finding that for long-term retention of learning, you’re better off spacing out the actual training events. This is going to help you retain the information better and also retrieve it more accurately after a longer period of time. This is something that is really well known in memory research.

The second finding is the testing effect. Again, this helps improve retention in the long term and it refers to the finding that testing or practicing retrieval is more effective for real learning as opposed to re-studying the information over and over again.

The third finding is our own judgment of our actual learning (regardless of whether we’re doing well or poorly. Our ability to judge our learning is actually not that great. This has a huge effect on how we plan and practice our training. An excellent way to help us assess how we’re doing it is by practicing retrieval. That means if there’s any kind of procedure/info that you need to learn, and if you have a certain amount of time to study this information, it’s best to try some strategies that actively make you retrieve the information as opposed to passively trying to remember it. This could include attempting to explain the information to someone else or asking questions in your mind as you’re going through it and then answering them as well.

  1. How do the spacing and testing effect work hand in hand?

Dr. Alice Kim:

I think they can be applied to corporate learning in combination. The idea of the spacing effect is the opposite of cramming, where information is studied over and over again. With spacing you want to actually increase the timing between study events. This is going to help you encode the information better in your mind and you can combine this with testing. If you do combine spacing with testing, research has shown that this will result in the best performance.

  1. What are some effective retrieval techniques? 

Dr. Alice Kim:

One technique is to have members of your team explain or teach certain lessons to other members. This is a great way to assess what you do know and what you don’t know. Our own judgment of what we know and what we don’t know is actually very poor. Whenever we get into that situation where we have to teach something, it’s an excellent way to assess what we do have to review and what we don’t.

Jackie Morton

Think of your learners as active learners and incorporate that into all of your techniques. Move away from long lectures and all of the traditional conventional approaches that we’ve always taken and engage learners as much as possible. Use interaction in learning situations and have respect for the learner—that they have something to bring to the the conversation. If they are thinking about things from their own context and they’re generating responses and thinking about how it relates to what they already know, that’s where you’re getting the deepest learning.

Carol Leaman

Retrieval-based learning is currently being used across many types of content. There are lots of companies using it for leadership training and what to do in risky situations. Instead of asking a simple factual question, they are asking questions that are scenario based. For instance, if you were presented with this situation and you observed an employee doing X, Y,Z, what would be your approach to dealing with this situation? This could be a multiple choice question. You could even employ different question styles. For instance, matching questions, which involve matching a response to a behavior and allowing employees to match the correct behavior. This tends to be a much more difficult question for employees to answer when compared to multiple choice. You can map the type of questions too. Those that are behavioral based tend to be more difficult questions styles to illicit more judgment on the part of the employee. There are companies using this already for many different things.

  1. Is there any research that shows that gamification is better than retrieval practice? 

Jackie Morton

Gamification supports retrieval practice in a great way. There’s a substantial amount of literature that supports both retrieval and gamification. Most of us know that gamification is fun and if you’re doing something fun, it’s got your attention and if you combine that with retrieval, in my experience, that is a strong combination to support long-term memory.

Carol Leaman

We actually use gamification de-coupled from the actual learning. There are three types of gamification that we often talk about: The first is simulation (like what pilots use to train); the second is game-based learning (which we would know as a video-type game); and the third is game mechanics. Our data shows that game mechanics promote 20% more participation with learning.

Game mechanics are actually elements of the game but not the game itself. So things like: leveling up, leaderboards, gameplay. There are about 15-20 core game mechanics that we have shown will engage the learner in wanting to do the activity. But, the activity of learning is actually separate from the game itself. For example, using avatars or coaches, giving instant feedback and report cards, leaderboards, points, rewards and things for engaging in the activity are all examples of game mechanics. So, as I mentioned, across hundreds of thousands of learners, we’ve been able to show that those who play games, again de-coupled from the learning activity, participate 20% more in learning voluntarily and show significant increases in knowledge lift.

  1. How can retrieval/gamification and our compressed amount of time for learning, impact culture? 

Carol Leaman

We have a large segment of retail customers who have tens of thousands of employees and, in the retail sector, time is measured down to the second. What we’ve discovered is that when you make learning accessible on POS terminals, on mobile devices, basically anywhere the employee has access, they will find three minutes a day to do voluntary training. As an example, Walmart is using a very quick retrieval-based solution in 120 distribution facilities and it is only accessible on a laptop that is put throughout the facilities. Walmart gets 55,000 people a week out of 70,000 voluntarily going on and doing three to four minutes of learning. The best part about that is the feedback from general managers is that the culture of safety, within those distribution centers, has changed wholeheartedly. Some of their managers say that they’ve never before heard their employees actually talking about learning. Time is at a premium, but just allowing them that three minutes, when they have three minutes, has made a massive cultural and safety difference as it turns out.

  1. How does the research support using these brain science techniques to teach some kind of skill as opposed to knowledge? 

Dr. Alice Kim

Earlier, Carol made the distinction between declarative and procedural memory. Declarative basically covers information that you can explicitly say and declare, tell me something, tell me right now or say it out loud. The procedural memory we’re talking about is actually doing things (behavior). Research shows that spacing and retrieval are effective for procedural learning as well. The two findings (spacing and retrieval) are very robust and, when I say that, I mean they are very applicable across many different types of learning.

Carol Leaman

A retrieval based practice, where you are measuring what people know and don’t know every time they answer questions, can be very effective at driving behavior change that is measurable in terms of a financial outcome for the organization.

I can give you three very specific examples of behaviour change that were measurable in different organizations. Walmart’s goal was to convey knowledge around health and safety issues and create a culture of safety. Their goal was to reduce OSHA recordables by 5% and they actually achieved more than a 50% reduction. That is the outcome of changing behaviour as a result of knowledge acquisition. Another example is Capital BlueCross. The company experienced errors in claims processing rates, which were a large financial cost for the organization. Through this new approach, they were able to reduce those claims processing error rates by over 60%. The third example is from the pharma sector, specifically in the sales function. As many of you know, in the pharma sector product knowledge is vital, very complex and changes quickly. Pharma reps practically need to be medical doctors themselves to be able to sell products. And with information constantly changing, it’s very, very difficult. Using this retrieval-based learning, pharma reps are actually able to sell more, so it’s more than just, What is the feature of the product I’m selling? It’s about, How do I sell more effectively? How do I position the product? It’s more judgement based/behavioural based information that they are constantly reminded of through retrieval practice, which is, in fact, changing sales outcomes.

Written by Carol Leaman

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