A Simple Trick to More Effective Learning

Future State
Dec 11, 2017 · 3 min read

To increase the efficiency of learning programs, employ some neuroscience basics.

By Jennifer Riebli

I sit down on the plane and settle in. The flight safety video starts. My brain is thinking of other things. I’ve seen all of this before. Same old stuff. Buckle your seat belt. In the event of an emergency landing… blah, blah, blah. Then the flight attendant in the video says, “Smoking is not allowed,” and I see a passenger holding an uncooked steak while he begrudgingly closes the barbecue he has placed in the aisle.

Well, that woke me up. Something new.

Getting Our Attention
Did you know advertisers intentionally make a slight change to a TV ad after it’s played over several weeks? Why? Because they know we’ll pay attention if our brains detect something new in the now-familiar ad.

Science tells us the brain is stimulated by novelty in the environment. With so much for the brain to take in, it’s designed to tune out the familiar stuff and pay attention to anything new and different. We do this to survive. Something new might be a danger to us, so our brains pay attention.

In fact, by introducing something new, we can actually increase memory retention.

Wow. That’s powerful for learning. Maybe teachers shouldn’t start each day with a review of the lesson from the previous day. Maybe they should be starting with something totally new first, then review previous topics. Science indicates this will actually help students retain information better.

Ok, so what’s this all about? What’s actually happening in the brain?

The Science of Learning
Quick science lesson: Your brain is constantly scanning the environment for new information. When it receives it, this triggers dopamine, which stimulates brain activity. “Dopamine…is very much involved in learning and memory, which occur in the brain through changes in the way that neurons connect to one another,” writes cognitive neuroscientist Russell Poldrack. “When dopamine is released, it is a signal to the brain that it is now time to start learning what is going on.”

This stimulated linking experience helps increase the chance that the brain will store that information into longer-term memory.

Once our brains acknowledge the new information, we then integrate that new information by linking or associating it with existing information. Mind you, our brains don’t store things in order like a file cabinet. It’s more like a web — the more related links and associations, the better the chances that linking will take place.

This stimulated linking experience helps increase the chance that the brain will store that information into longer-term memory. In other words, new information presented with what’s familiar can help strengthen both. (Full disclosure: I’m not a scientist. So that was not a scientific explanation. But hopefully it explains what’s happening behind the scenes.)

So what does this mean for those of us that design training? Simply put, to create more efficient and effective learning programs, we should design with the brain in mind. Mix in new concepts while repeating older information and you’ll find not only stimulated students but also learners who will be able to better retain what you teach them.

JENNIFER RIEBLI has more than 16 years of experience providing results-driven learning approaches and consulting expertise to a variety of clients in the private and public sector through Future State, a purpose-driven management consultant firm in Oakland. Jennifer brings creativity, focus and discipline to her work and draws from both proven learning methodologies along with new approaches in order to craft unique and optimal solutions. Jennifer loves investigating the challenges in a project, leveraging her depth of knowledge and skills in instructional design, eLearning strategies, blended learning, competency modeling, curriculum development, and organizational effectiveness.


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