By Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith, General Manager, Integrated Talent Management, PageUp People
By understanding the underpinnings of the science behind how humans learn, organizations can improve their learning and development practices. Being aware of the factors that limit, or conversely, enhance, the learning process, enables organizations to equip their talent with the requisite skills for high individual and business performance.
At birth, the brain consists of 100 billion neurons, a number that remains relatively stable throughout life. However, what does change are the connections between these neurons and the formation of individually unique neural networks. Neural networks are formed for everything to which a person pays attention. When people pay attention—that is, engage in the moment—memories are formed through a three-part process that includes encoding, storage, and retrieval. Any disconnect in this process compromises the memory, hindering learning.
As people acquire new information, the brain takes this information and adds to or changes existing perceptions in order to process it. As this happens, the brain’s neural networks physiologically change—a process referred to as neuroplasticity. In effect, this is how people learn.
For learning to take place, what a person is about to learn must be engrossing and hold the learner’s attention. Engagement and focus are crucial because when the learner suffers from a lack of concentration, neural networks fail to adequately form.
As an organization seeking to educate employees, the process of learning and development must align with an employee’s motivation. An employee who does not perceive the learning value or lacks interest in the material is unlikely to retain and, subsequently, truly learn. Overwhelmed employees have no intrinsic incentive to learn; therefore, the brain fails to activate the necessary chemistry-based (in this case, dopamine) reward mechanisms that stimulate and reinforce learning.
Organizations that optimize learning conditions can realize greater value from their development programs. A holistic learning approach recognizes that the brain not only interacts with incoming information, but also with the entire context in which it is presented. Therefore, a productive learning environment must address the physical, cognitive, and emotional elements in that environment.
The volume of information people are exposed to creates challenges in the brain’s ability to process and recall the information. Ensure that content is pitched at a level that is challenging, but within the capability of the target audience. Learning is a resource-hungry brain activity and there are limits to the brain’s capacity to digest and store new material. With the brain drawing approximately 20 percent of the body’s available energy, increased mental demands associated with learning draw more oxygenated blood into the brain as neurons need fuel to fire. Quality sleep is an important precursor to any learning activity as neurons activated during learning tasks are reactivated during slow wave sleep.
Various factors compete for available cognitive capacity required to effectively learn. Employee learning requires that the learner channel available resources and meet all the learning demands in the environment, which include stresses linked not only to work, but family and other outside activities.
Emotion regulates where we place our attention. Therefore, it is essential to “recruiting” or enlisting the neural networks on which we build our knowledge. Activations that occur during the encoding of a new memory enhance its subsequent retrieval, meaning that emotional cues linked to learning content forge a deeper and richer neural pathway than fact-based content alone.
Organizations also need to consider who is involved in employee training, as interaction and support are critical and play a direct role in learning uptake. The need for social interaction is biologically based and fundamental to survival, as well as learning. During childhood and adolescence years, people learn through direct experiences or observation of others. Through these means, new learning is created and current thinking is tested and validated. When training in unsupportive environments or on unproductive teams, learning outcomes are compromised.
Successful learning programs also recognize an employee’s physiological needs. Organizations should provide adequate food and water while also considering the environment’s lighting, temperature, and ventilation, as well as the physical space.
Critical business issues of leadership bench strength, accelerating the development of high potentials, building the core competencies of strategic thinking, and inspiring others remain a top priority for organizations across all industries.
Organizations leading the field in training and development must integrate learning practices rooted in sound theory, including:
Organizations that invest in learning and development programs for their employees can achieve high performance by looking to the field of neuroscience for pragmatic approaches to enhanced learning and development practices.
Lila Davachi, associate professor of Psychology at NYU, highlights four criteria necessary for effective learning in her learning model known by the acronym, AGES: attention, generation, emotion, and spacing.
Neuroscience explains how the brain acquires, stores, and uses information and what intrinsic and extrinsic factors can limit us from optimizing this process. By understanding more about how humans learn, organizational learning and development professionals can tap the learning capacities of the brain that will drive the learning results toward which they strive. Organizational initiatives guided by scientific breakthroughs will combine to crystallize learning potential.
Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith is general manager, Integrated Talent Management, at PageUp People. She holds degrees in business and psychology and currently is completing a Master of Science in NeuroLeadership. Vorhauser-Smith has 25 years experience as a senior talent management and human resources practitioner and consultant. Her corporate career included roles in corporate finance and human resources at Citibank and Westpac. She established talent management consulting firm Talent Edge, which was acquired by PageUp People in 2007.