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What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Learning

By Dave Fisher

Dave FisherThe field of neuroscience seems to be virtually exploding with new research. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists are able to measure and map brain activity to gain a better understanding of how our brains work.

And those of us in the field of learning and development are seeing some significant benefits from this research. In some cases, it helps us understand why some of the things we do to help learners acquire and apply new skills work, from a scientific or biological perspective. It also helps us identify ways to make the process of transferring new skills to the workplace even more effective.

My colleague, Diane Bock, and I conducted a recent webinar, Talk to the Brain, on this subject in which we shared some best practices for leveraging recent neuroscience research to enhance the learning experience.

Maintain Focus

NeuroscienceWe know learners need to pay full attention when they’re learning a new skill. We also know that long lectures are not an effective learning method. Based on neuroscience, there is agreement that the brain can only pay full attention for about 15 to 20 minutes before it experiences fatigue and loss of focus. And, it can take up to 20 minutes for the brain to regain that focus. (No wonder long lectures are ineffective!)

But we can help learners pay attention by changing things up every 15 to 20 minutes. This can be as simple as asking a question or giving learners a moment to reflect on what they’re learning and how they might apply it in the workplace.

Another threat to focus is distractions. With the pressures of work and the ubiquity of smart phones providing easy access to email, text messages, etc., learners are easily sidetracked. The brain uses a “braking system” to inhibit distractions, but that braking system takes significant amounts of energy which can cause brain fatigue and loss of focus. We can help learners manage those distractions by telling them when they’ll be able to check email or make phone calls, or when they can expect to take a break to attend to biological functions.

Make Connections

At DDI we always strive to end a course on a “high note” with a big, high-energy closing activity. We tend to think that if we end on a high note, it will create the desire for learners to take action on what they’ve learned. Now we’re learning that while that big, high-energy activity can help learners transfer skills to the workplace, a simple public commitment might be sufficient.

Neuroscience research shows that when a commitment is made, particularly when it includes a “testimonial” to be delivered to a trusted colleague, the brain starts to build a physical connection to this new information. And, if learners continue to focus on and apply that new knowledge, that physical connection will continue to grow and flourish until the new behavior becomes habit or second nature.

Now What?

The confluence of neuroscience and learning will continue to evolve and expand. As students of learning, we should stay close to this research as we continue to help individuals learn new skills and take on more challenging situations. Our job is to capitalize on this emerging research and leverage it to help our learners be even more successful.

View the webinar Talk to the Brain to learn how to use neuroscience to capture the imagination of your learners and help them successfully apply new skills in the workplace.

Dave Fisher is a leadership solutions manager at DDI.

Posted: 04 Nov, 2015,
Talk to an Expert: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Learning
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