In the constantly changing landscape of L&D, it's easy to get caught up in the latest training methods, learning platforms, and instructional design trends. However, there's a fundamental element that often escapes our attention—the human brain itself.
Meet Lauren Waldman, a seasoned learning pro who, like many of us, was deeply absorbed in the world of education, training, and corporate learning. But one day, something struck her. She realized that despite her extensive experience teaching and crafting learning, there was one critical aspect she had been overlooking—the very organ responsible for learning: the human brain.
Reflecting on her path, Lauren recounts, “I mean, after teaching for several years and then being in corporate for several years, touching thousands of students and employees from all around the globe with my learning design, I was like, why didn't I ever think about the brain— the verything doing the learning?”
Lauren's story is an exciting one—a story of transition from a conventional learning professional to a neuroscience enthusiast.
Her quest for knowledge started with books like "How the Brain Learns" by David A. Sousa, opening the door to the world of neuroscience. She went on engaging with online courses, and later on driven by a personal mission to help those facing cognitive challenges like dementia, Lauren delved deeper into medical neuroscience at Duke and neuroimaging at John Hopkins University.
Today, her dedication to understanding the brain's inner workings has not only shaped her professional journey but also positioned her as a source of wisdom for learning professionals around the world.
In this exclusive interview, Lauren generously shares her guide for integrating neuroscience into the world of L&D. She shares practical insights and real-life experiences from her journey, revealing the crucial distinctions between conventional learning approaches and those informed by neuroscience. Whether you're a learning professional, educator, or simply curious about the brain's role in learning, Lauren's insights will benefit you tremendously.
MEMORY, COGNITIVE LOAD, AND CONTEXTUAL RELEVANCE: THREE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES
We often find ourselves eager to embrace the latest learning methods and technology. While this tendency is not to blame, Lauren suggests starting with a different approach—incorporating key neuroscience principles into our learning design.
Memory: The foundation of learning
She first emphasizes the significance of understanding memory in designing effective learning experiences. As she puts it, "When thinking about memory you should keep in mind its different facets, but also how long it could potentially take to create or to help create a memory for yourself or for somebody else."
Consider this: On average, it takes between six to eight weeks to cultivate and strengthen a new neural network that will represent a memory. This insight has profound implications for our profession. When designing learning programs, we must consider the time required for learners to absorb and retain information.
Lauren's advice is clear: "Think about that when you're designing your learning—how you need to space learning out to have the most impact. Sleep/ rest is when memory is actually consolidated, so rehearsal and retrieval practices are critical." Recognizing memory's role allows us to facilitate the fundamental human process of creating and reorganizing neural structures, making learning more effective.
Cognitive Load: The art of resource allocation
The second key element she highlights is cognitive load, closely tied to working memory. "Everything always comes back to memory." Cognitive load refers to how resources are allocated, and it's an area where many learning programs fall short.
She warns against overloading learners with too much information at once anduses a vivid metaphor: "If you're designing and you're adding in animations, changing colors, background music, and clickable buttons simultaneously, it's like handing someone too many plates to carry." The result? Shattered attention and diminished focus—the enemies of impactful learning.
Effective learning design requires a careful allocation of resources to prevent cognitive overload. Simplify, prioritize, and guide learners' attention strategically to optimize the learning experience.
Leveraging schemas: Enhancing contextual relevance in learning
"Building upon something, whether it's the contextual experience or context, is incredibly important."
This is not just advice from practice, but also from years of research. People don’t need contextual relevance just because. They need it because that’s how our brain operates—it organizes information in a way that is easy for us to make sense of—in schemas. Schemas are cognitive structures similar to mental templates or frameworks that guide our perception, understanding, and memory of events, concepts, and experiences.
So if we want people to better understand, retain, and recall information, we must not forget they come to our learning programs with prior knowledge and experiences that we need to take into consideration.
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ENCODE, STORE, RETRIEVE: THE MEMORY TRIAD
“We don't talk enough about memory in learning and development. We just don't, and you can't say learning without memory.” It's a statement that reverberates in everyone’s ears, shedding light on a fundamental truth. In an industry where our primary goal is to help people acquire skills, and change behaviors, the role of a fundamental actor, memory, in the learning process is often relegated to the shadows.
Here’s a look at the three memory formation steps.
Encoding: The genesis of learning
During the encoding phase, the brain demands considerable energy and focus. This is when learners are actively engaged in the learning process for the first time. Whether you're teaching a new skill or introducing fresh concepts, the encoding phase is when neural connections are initially formed. It's akin to laying the foundation for a sturdy house—it requires meticulous attention and effort.
Lauren underlines the importance of recognizing this stage in learning design. It's when learners are most vulnerable to cognitive overload, and thus, we must be cautious not to inundate them with excessive information or complex tasks. The brain's capacity for absorbing and processing new information is finite, and overloading it can lead to diminished learning outcomes.
Storage: Reinforcement and repetition
As learners progress from encoding to storage, the focus shifts to reinforcement and repetition. This phase involves practices like rehearsal and retrieval exercises. Here, the goal is to strengthen the newly formed neural connections. It's akin to strengthening the framework of that house you've laid the foundation for during encoding.
“It's again incredibly critical at this time in the storage process that we're not overwhelming the cognitive load and that we're not overwhelming working memory. You just can't take in that much and then retrieve.”
Lauren's insights here emphasize the need for moderation. Overwhelming learners during this phase can disrupt the delicate balance required for effective learning. Learners need time to revisit and reinforce what they've learned without feeling overwhelmed. This is a key consideration when designing learning programs—providing spaced-out opportunities for storing knowledge.
Retrieval: The goal of learning
Ultimately, the culmination of the memory process is retrieval. If information has been successfully encoded and stored, learners should be able to retrieve it when needed. This phase often becomes a subconscious act, illustrating the brain's remarkable ability to recall information that has been effectively processed.
Lauren also touches upon the concept of the forgetting curve—the idea that forgetting some information over time is natural and can actually aid in memory retention. However, the goal of learning is to reinforce and strengthen neural networks through storage and retrieval, making information more readily accessible.
INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL FACTORS INFLUENCING LEARNING
Homeostasis, Metacognition, and Focus
Lauren's insights explore the intricate relationship between internal and external factors that significantly impact the learning process.
Homeostasis and Self-Regulation: “Am I tired? Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? Am I sleepy? You know, what does my homeostasis look like? So what's the internal environment telling me?” Understanding our internal conditions is crucial, as they affect our cognitive functioning and learning capabilities. Maintaining homeostasis is essential for optimal learning.
Metacognition and Self-Awareness: Lauren introduces the concept of metacognition—a valuable skill that enables us to monitor and regulate our thought processes, emotions, and learning strategies. Through self-reflection and practice, we can develop metacognitive abilities, allowing us to ask questions like "What am I thinking? What am I feeling? Am I focused?" This self-awareness empowers us to make informed decisions about our learning processes.
Focus as a Learnable Skill:"Imagine you're in a hurry, about to run out the door, and you start questioning yourself: 'Do I have my keys? My phone? What about my bag?' It's a frantic, chaotic moment. But then, you hear a voice inside, urging you to focus. You want to leave the house quickly, so you stop right there, take a breath, and ask yourself, 'What do I really need?' It's in that moment of recognizing your own frenzy that you gain the skill to navigate the situation more efficiently.”
Lauren argues that focus is a skill that can be honed through deliberate practice and conscious effort. Understanding our cognitive processes and creating an ideal learning environment are essential to enhancing our ability to focus effectively.
Keeping in mind the external environment
Lauren also emphasizes the significance of aligning external learning conditions with our goals. She acknowledges the diversity of learning environments, from traditional office settings to unconventional venues like distribution centers and farms.
Creating an Optimal Learning Space: She first underscores the importance of crafting a conducive external environment for learning. Whether it's a formal office or an unconventional space, the learning environment should be designed to enhance the learning experience. Lauren's insights highlight the need to consider factors such as lighting, temperature, and overall comfort to ensure an optimal learning space.
Adapting to Diverse Learning Settings: Recognizing that learning occurs in a variety of settings, Lauren reminds us to adapt and thrive in diverse environments. Whether we are in an office, a distribution center, or a unique setting like a farm, understanding how to adjust our learning approach to each environment is essential for effective learning outcomes.
By considering both internal factors like homeostasis, metacognition, and focus, as well as external conditions in various learning settings, we can create a comprehensive approach to learning that maximizes our potential for growth and development. Lauren's insights offer a holistic perspective on the multifaceted nature of the learning experience.
TWO COMMON MISCONCEPTION ABOUT LEARNING
The L&D world is oftentimes plagued with misconceptions. Yet, which are the biggest ones?
Misconception I: Learning should be fast
Lauren emphasizes that the misconception that learning happens quickly is a prevalent one. In the rush to deliver bite-sized, convenient learning, we often underestimate the time required for effective knowledge retention. As she points out, "Look at all the learning out there. It's like, hey, we're going to do a 30-minute e-learning and click, click, click, click, click. We're done. Yay. Everyone learned something."
However, she challenges this notion, highlighting the importance of giving learners the time they need to encode and internalize information effectively. This research-driven perspective calls for a shift in the way we approach learning program timelines, ensuring they align with the brain's natural processes.
Misconception II: Learning should be easy
Another common misconception is the idea that learning should be effortless and enjoyable at all times. Lauren suggests that "you should be making your learning hard to a certain threshold." Learning, she argues, is a cognitive endeavor that requires effort and engagement. Designing challenging learning experiences, within reason, can promote deeper understanding and retention.
APPLYING THE THEORY TO PRACTICE
With the theory laid out, Lauren walks us through her own design process.
Practice #1: From a narrow to a holistic research approach
The first element that sets Lauren’s research process apart is her insistence on speaking to all stakeholders involved, not just the immediate learners, "I'm usually pretty insistent on the fact that I get to speak to as many pieces of that puzzle as I can. I remember being called upon by a client to help redesign an onboarding supervisor program for their distribution centers, where the environment is very complex and potentially confusing. So I asked to talk to more than HR—health & safety, and production teams are also involved in the process. So I need to understand how the learning experience will impact them.”
Lauren makes a point that involving different stakeholders in the learning process design will help both the end learner and each stakeholder group. This holistic approach creates a ripple effect, ensuring buy-in, and investment from different divisions within an organization. When people from various functions see that their concerns and needs are considered, they become more willing participants in the learning journey.
Another element of her research process is taken from behavioral science practices—watching the learner in their day-to-day environment. “A lot of the times when they permit me, I go onto the floor of wherever it is that they need me to go. You just have to get somebody who will take you through what their day-to-day is.” This, together with input from diverse stakeholders will give you a good baseline of their current experience.
Finally, she mentions that our needs analysis practices are often inadequate as they involve a very narrow audience. “You don't just talk to the person who's been there for 8 to 10 years because they might know the most. No, I want the person who just started two weeks ago and is still scared. Then I want to meet the person three months in. That’s how, slowly, you get a full picture.”
Practice II: Be intentional about novelty
In learning design, there's a common notion that making things "fun" and "engaging" is the key to success. But Lauren challenges this idea. She explains, "The brain loves novelty because it's like, 'Ooh, that's different. Ooh, that's fun and surprising and amazing.'" However, she warns—when learners anticipate novelty, they become distracted by the promise of amusement, and the focus shifts from learning to seeking entertainment.
So, how does a learning designer incorporate novelty without veering off course? Lauren suggests a thoughtful approach. Instead of saturating the learning experience with constant amusement, she advocates strategically inserting moments of novelty. This keeps the brain engaged while ensuring that the primary focus remains on the learning objectives.
Practice III: Help learners engage in metacognition
Metacognition plays a pivotal role in Lauren’s design philosophy. She observes that many learning programs assume that once learners complete the course, they will effortlessly transfer their knowledge into practice. “So often people design learning and just think that people are going to get to the end and be like, cool, we got this. We'll just go practice on our own. Yet, that’s so far from the truth.” The brain has a nasty tendency to think that just because you saw something once, you know it—but as Lauren points out, that’s a trap that turns hours of work into dust. This is where metacognition comes into play.
She emphasizes the importance of designing learning experiences that trap learners in moments of self-reflection. By periodically prompting learners to question their understanding, she helps prevent the brain from glossing over essential concepts. These "aha" moments, where learners realize they need to revisit and reinforce their knowledge, are integral to effective learning.
Practice IV: Design thoughtful assessments
Assessment in learning often boils down to traditional methods like pop quizzes or multiple-choice questions. Lauren notes that true measures of learning success require a different approach, "Designing assessments that genuinely test learners' ability to apply knowledge in real-life scenarios is key to measuring the impact of a learning program."
It's not about a one-time quiz; it's about designing assessments that are woven into the learning journey. These assessments should be strategically placed to measure not just knowledge retention but also the ability to use that knowledge in practical situations. She emphasizes, "It's not about a one-time thing. It's not about a one-time measurement. It's about ongoing assessment throughout the journey."
By aligning assessments with real-world applications, designers can truly measure the transfer of learning. Lauren's approach challenges the conventional understanding of assessment and encourages a more dynamic and meaningful way of gauging the effectiveness of learning programs.
Lauren’s insights are fundamental. They don’t talk about a new shiny framework or even the latest technology. They talk about something that hardly ever changes—the way our brain functions, takes in new information and turns it into knowledge and skills.
This is ever-green knowledge for you, as a L&D professional. So we’ve partnered up with Lauren to support you in acquiring it through our program Designing Learning For The Brain. Check out our next cohort, and join us for the ride of a lifetime.
Co-Founder & Learning Architect at Offbeat
Lavinia Mehedintu has been designing learning experiences and career development programs for the past 9 years both in the corporate world and in higher education. As a Co-Founder and Learning Architect @Offbeat she’s applying adult learning principles so that learning & people professionals can connect, collaborate, and grow. She’s passionate about social learning, behavior change, and technology and constantly puts in the work to bring these three together to drive innovation in the learning & development space.
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