Learning strategy: how to use neuroscience to get the best from your learners

10th Jul 2018
Partner Head Heart + Brain
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Getting employees to buy into the idea of learning something new ultimately comes down to engaging with their brains in the right way. Neuroscience tells us a lot about how and why people learn – but how can we apply this in a business context?

It’s often been said that creating a learning culture in an organisation is about winning hearts and minds, but finding effective ways to connect with the minds in your team is where a lot of managers still struggle. There are many lessons we can take from neuroscience that will help to structure how we can present training more effectively.

To put it simply, the brain learns in two ways:

1. By creating new networks

Neurons pass electrical impulses between one another, and the more the neurons fire together repeatedly the more they create stronger, more established links.

The more new connections you create to an idea or insight, the better. The more new information is presented in different ways or is used, the more likely it is to stick. (Read How the Brain Learns for more information). 

2. Whole-body learning

Mirror neurons are thought to allow us to imitate the actions of others. It’s the way children learn and it’s believed that this is how our ancestors learned to use tools. There are two brilliant videos illustrating this. One is of children imitating and the other is of someone learning tennis. Look at the last few minutes learning the serve - it’s amazing.

This learning happens pre-consciously, which highlights the importance of on-the-job learning from good role models.

This type of learning isn’t linear, building from one point to another but the new skills still need to be reinforced to make them stick and to make the new neural pathways as strong as possible.

Whether the brain is creating new networks or you’re engaging in some whole-body learning, it’ll be easier if you ensure consistency, reinforcement, linkages, application and use role models to demonstrate examples of the learning in action.

A brain-savvy learning strategy

For learning and leadership development to be truly strategic it should of course be explicitly linked to the business strategy and culture of the company. This link is needed when it comes to needs analysis, design and positioning of events.

This may seem blindingly obvious, but actually is alignment happening? In one CIPD annual learning survey respondents said that their learning and development strategy is extremely aligned with the needs of the business in a quarter of organisations, and a further two-fifths reported that they are broadly aligned, with some discrepancies. Just 6% report no alignment.

Much more explanation is typically needed in terms of people understanding the need for the programme and also what’s in it for them.

Setting goals with managers before the programme or at the beginning is rarely enough, as managers may not fully understand the programme themselves and are generally poor at carrying out the goal-setting discussion.

We have found the most effective methods include:

  • A campaign of communication about a major programme made up of short, punchy learning descriptions that focus on outcomes rather than inputs.
  • Learners being given much more responsibility for the identification of their own learning needs but in a context that requires them to make a business-centred case for attending learning or for the company providing funding.
  • Conversation guides for managers for the goal-setting discussion and also help from HR business partners or learning consultants with the process of identifying who should attend.

Where a programme is in support of the business strategy and groups of learners across sections of the company are to attend, it’s also important to supply some clear branding, a name, logo and colours, and a cascade of the programme. Starting the roll-out with the most senior people and progressing to the more junior. Another tactic that works well is attendance in work groups.

Learning is easier when people intuitively understand the themes and when, where possible, the new knowledge or behaviours are demonstrated through role models.

Linking learning to the realities of the job is typically less of an issue, although the need to ensure learning is focused on the future rather than what was useful in the past can still be a struggle.

One of the important but often glossed over needs of a learning strategy is for participants to understand why they are being asked to learn something new and what the benefits will be to them personally.

'What‘s in it for me?'

This is one of the first questions running through the brain of anyone you’re targeting, whether it’s informal, on-the-job learning or a formal programme or workshop.

This question of motivation kicks in before anyone is even invited. Essentially, when you ask someone to learn something new, you’re asking them to do two things. One is to realign their group identity, and the other is to change their work habits.

Social beings

Humans are essentially social beings and one of the first things we do is categorise people into in-group (people similar to us) and out-group (people who are different).

Learning interventions and especially high-profile programmes where there’s competition to get a place will automatically create new in-groups in the form of programme participants and alumni. If people think that by taking part in the programme they're separating themselves from a valued in-group then they'll be reluctant to participate.

However, they’ll feel good about the prospect of attending a programme with high-potential colleagues or being offered a place on a course where numbers are limited, these can be powerful motivators.

One of the aims of the programme may be to mix up people from different functions across the organisation. Evidence shows that the boundaries of people's in-groups can change if you present evidence that challenges their preconceptions.

Front office people can learn something from service functions, and sales people can learn from accountants, for example. In order to overcome resistance to in-group change you need to create an awareness of the benefits of introducing participants to a valuable new network.

Being asked to learn can signal threat

Bear in mind that change is usually inherently threatening to people’s CORE elements (see our video for more on CORE).

There are ways to create feelings of reward that mitigate the threat, however, like learning in a community or the reputational boost that comes from being more skilled. Pre-programme communications that describe what’s in it for learners, the rewards of attending the learning and the social status which the new skills will give all mitigate threat and increase a sense of reward so that learners will be receptive to new skills, ideas and change.

It’s a good idea to make the links to why it’s important to learn new skills, change behaviour or think differently as explicit as possible.

It’s important that participants understand that being invited onto a particular course or learning event isn't implied criticism of how they're currently working.

Present the learning as an opportunity to get better, to master something new or to learn something which will benefit them personally and enhance their success.

In other words, learning needs to be framed in terms of a growth mindset and the associated benefits.

Signal success

A second way of answering that ‘what’s in it for me?’ question that helps with the application of new learning is to connect the content with the learners’ role and beliefs about their own success.

For example, suppose there’s content about a new way of carrying out performance reviews. If a learner asks him or herself, ‘how will knowing this content relate to my role and my success?’ it creates links between the new content and an existing neural network.

Researchers Kim and Johnson used fMRI to explore activation in a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which is active when we’re thinking about ourselves or reflecting.

The researchers asked participants to rate how much they liked images they were shown. Later, the images were randomly assigned as belonging to the participant or to another person. People were more likely to remember the images assigned as ‘theirs’ and there was activity in the MPFC associated with the memory.

It’s also worth letting people know ‘what’s in it for them’ on a personal level. A clear vision of the future helps people maintain new behaviours and strive harder to achieve the change.

Practical implications

Within and across programmes, it’s a good idea to make the links to why it’s important to learn new skills, change behaviour or think differently as explicit as possible.

The goals of the programme or event should clearly link to the business strategy, as we’ve said, but they should also be personalised to the individual learner either through mechanisms like a discussion with the boss, through using 360 feedback, self-assessment tools or pre-event reflection questions that help potential participants think about the relevance of the learning to their success.

This helps to answer the question ‘why should I attend this programme, learn this new behaviour or adopt this new way of thinking?’ It also reduces uncertainty and enhances the reputation of those who adopt the proposed changed behaviours or knowledge.

Learning is easier when people intuitively understand the themes and when, where possible, the new knowledge or behaviours are demonstrated through role models.

See if you can build in education and training for role models and ensure they speak the same language, use the same models and purposefully demonstrate behaviours to their colleagues.

When we talk about role models, they don’t have to be there in person, or even be actual people - they can be case studies, videos, examples, stories or people identified by the learners in or outside the company.

This article series contains many articles analysing learning from a neuroscience perspective. Want to read more? The full article series can be seen here.

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Replies (17)

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By [email protected]
23rd Mar 2016 12:58

Jan I have just managed to grab some time to read your article. I found it very interesting and felt myself nodding at your obswrvations and information. I have made a note to insert what you suggest on role models. I deliver s programme for women and on the last day I think this would be beneficial. I like the idea of incorporating a clip which tells a story. Very powerful and easy if I can find the right one plus not add too much extra time to a full day! Many thanks Sue B

Thanks (1)
Replying to [email protected]:
Jan Hills, Head Heart and Brain
By Jan Hills
24th Mar 2016 14:17

Book on the way! I would be interested to hear how the tweaks you are making work.

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By PaulRoe
23rd Mar 2016 15:25

I've been the Education Services Manager for a member-based Maker Space (think health club minus treadmills plus shop equipment) for the past 7 months. The company had developed predominantly lecture-based content for members to learn to use the shop equipment, I'm going to use the information to reinforce my position to revise our content to include a relatively detailed learning outline covering a much more demonstration/kinesthetic (kinaesthetic)-based learning experience. I'm also going to cite this article in an instructional designer course for absolute beginners for my subject matter experts.
Thank you for your time.

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Replying to PaulRoe:
Jan Hills, Head Heart and Brain
By Jan Hills
24th Mar 2016 14:18

Thank you for using the ideas. The book will be on its way after Easter. Good luck with the changes. Jan

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By jlarson
24th Mar 2016 13:05

Very practical and exciting. I can use the ideas of how to communicate for a current project that will involve major change, communication and training. I need the supervisors to feel as part of the program and willing to learn the ins and outs so that they will see value and find ways to support with their reports. I will also share this with my field staff who design learning for volunteers over the course of 27 months of service in foreign countries.

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Replying to jlarson:
Jan Hills, Head Heart and Brain
By Jan Hills
24th Mar 2016 14:19

Hi Good luck with the project. a book is on the way to you. jan

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Replying to jlarson:
Jan Hills, Head Heart and Brain
By Jan Hills
04th Apr 2016 07:15

Hi the neuroscience research is very helpful when undergoing change. Thanks you for spreading the word. Good luck with the project.

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Replying to jlarson:
Jan Hills, Head Heart and Brain
By Jan Hills
04th Apr 2016 07:17

Sorry for the delay in responding to these excellent ideas. I have been moving house and office and have had limited internet access. The next series is on managing stress in a move! Only joking. I love the enthusiasm everyone has for this topic and books on the way as soon as i can find the box. Jan

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By LubnaGem
26th Mar 2016 14:03

Hi Jan. My key takeaway is that it reinforces how important the planning stages of the training are to ensure that it delivers maximum value. I apply neuroscience through experiential learning involving plenty of emotion - whether that is the fun / playfulness in some of the explorations or the fear-factor that tends to come up in role plays.

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By tbostic1
28th Mar 2016 17:51

Jan - I found the article interesting and informative. I have recently been given the opportunity to design training corporately and I'm realizing that I have tried to utilize some of the methods you mentioned without even knowing the science behind it. (Smile) Going forward, I will certainly try to incorporate more of the role models in with case studies of the behaviors modelled in the organization. I also really enjoyed watching the mimicking videos. Fascinating! Now trying to decide on engaging exercises or activities that can utilize this approach within our corporate environment. Thanks Tanisha B.

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By bwilding
31st Mar 2016 20:58

I really enjoyed your article some of which confirmed why I still enjoy what I do as an L&D professional after 30 years, plus there's always something new either in the article itself or what's written inspires or ignites you to try something new. I will definitely be using my new 'learning' from your article in a new programme of Coaching Supervision Training that I'm putting together which I hope to get accredited by the ILM at level 7. This will give it some academic rigour and credibility. Thanks again, Barry

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By CatherineLP
04th Apr 2016 14:35

A very interesting article which I have shared with a group of people in our organisation. We are looking at how to improve our performance management training across the organisation and there are some really interesting ideas here that I think we can use. Both ideas for planning the content and delivery of the intervention and also ways to create the demand for it amongst the learning audience. The tennis video was extremely interesting and made me think about ways in which we can remove 'the noise' or fear of failure from the learning environment, particularly in things such as role play. Thank you

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By kerenjamieson
04th Apr 2016 22:31

Hi Jan

I'm currently designing Performance Management content, and looking at different ways to grab the attention of employees. It's a new concept to those below managerial level and I don't want to sound dictatorial or sound like its a way to control and watch without bringing in the great benefits of performance management.

I'd like to learn more about better managing what's in it for the employees and explain the competencies in ways that everyone can 'get'.


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Replying to kerenjamieson:
Jamie Lawrence, TrainingZone
By Jamie Lawrence
05th Apr 2016 10:12

Hi Keren - could you email your address to [email protected] please so I can pass it onto Jan so she can send you a book? I tried to email the address in your profile but it didn't work.

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Replying to kerenjamieson:
Jan Hills, Head Heart and Brain
By Jan Hills
09th Apr 2016 14:21

agree getting people to understand PM and what would work for them is crucial. Good luck hope it goes well.

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By [email protected]
25th Apr 2016 09:08

Hi Jan,

I have just re-read your article. I first read it a month ago and have been able to put several of your points into action.
We have included a section on how people learn during the programme launch. I will also give a greater focus to "what's in it for me" as I am designing my next course.
It was also useful to confirm that some of the things that we are already doing are "the right things to do". For example, we have just launched a leadership programme and have used strong branding, linking the courses to a logo and colours to make it instantly recognisable. It has been launched, via a video message from the Chief exec. expalining why the programme has been designed and what it includes and we have engaged the line managers to help support and follow up the change of behaviours back in the workplace.
Thank you for an interesting and useful post!

Thanks (1)
By David Cuffley
04th Jun 2016 11:38

Thanks Jan, very useful. the piece about spacing is particularly applicable and I intend to apply this to the programme I am running next month, by running a series of follow up virtual sessions. By actually covering content rather than just reviewing actions, this should help the content stick!


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