How Employees Learn

Bring the Science of Learning into Your Employee Training

You’re in an online class trying to focus on a slide full of black text on a white background. Your hand is slowly inching toward your cell phone because you just remembered your eye appointment and feel compelled to double-check the time. After daydreaming about getting out for a walk after work, you check back in with the course. You are alarmed to see that the instructor is still on the same slide. Sigh.

This scenario is common across many workplaces because, in many cases, employee training is created without much thought about how learners learn best. Making any type of learning really stick and be relatable to the learner—whether it’s a YouTube video, in-person course, podcast, or online learning—requires an understanding of the science of learning. At ELM, our expertise is eLearning, which is why this article will focus on how you can translate the science of learning into strategies for effective and engaging eLearning for your employees.

How Our Brains Like to Learn

The science of learning comes down to knowing how our brains like to learn.

Our brains crave repetition and patterns—with a bit of the unexpected thrown in to wake us up to alternatives we haven’t thought about. The occasional jolt of the unfamiliar forces us to pay attention.

We are also, of course, emotional creatures, so we seek an emotional connection to what we’re learning and a connection to our existing knowledge so we can relate new information to what we already know. We also need to care about what we’re learning; otherwise, we’re tempted to click Close, go through the motions, or check our smartphones—completely losing focus and the opportunity for learning.

Emotional connections to learning elicit an “angel’s cocktail” of chemicals in our brains–dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins that wake us up to new possibilities and make the learning more meaningful and engaging.

As humans living in the 21st century, we think we’re adept at multitasking, yet we’re easily distracted. We learn best in an optimal learning environment—free from distractions, with calming color schemes, maybe with background music and meaningful visuals. When your brain is stressed out due to too many distractions, it’s reactive instead of receptive to learning, which stops learning cold.

We also learn best when our cognitive load isn’t overwhelming. Cognitive load is the amount of information that our working memory, which processes or discards sensory information, can handle at once. According to John Sweller, who developed the Cognitive Load Theory, our working memory can generally hold between five and nine chunks of information at a time. Long-term memory, on the other hand, is memory that stays with us over time, such as riding a bicycle, using a memorized recipe, or reciting a poem by heart.

How Does Understanding the Science of Learning Translate into eLearning?

If our brains crave repetition and patterns, and respond to the unexpected, how does effective eLearning address those needs? Say you’re creating employee training on how to make a sales pitch. Repeat the sales pitch information in multiple ways:

  1. Offer a brief module on the elements of a good sales pitch.
  2. Include flow charts and other visual elements to present the information in a different way.
  3. Add a few scenarios to allow the learner to explore sales pitch skills on their own, weaving in common mistakes or misconceptions to find the best way to handle multiple situations. Using scenarios based on real-world tasks makes the content meaningful and relatable, leading to more engagement.

In our sales pitch example, you can’t assume that the learner is going to store everything they learn in their long-term memory. Consider how to use performance support tools like job aids and infographics that they can reference when needed to help solve a problem or quickly access information.

Our brains also love stories, which are a great conduit for emotional connections. Ever heard of the Hero’s Journey? It’s a common narrative about a hero encountering trials, rising triumphant, and returning changed.

You can create eLearning that makes the learner a protagonist in their own Hero’s Journey, eliciting an angel’s cocktail of those three chemicals by using metaphors and images to place the learner in the middle of the action. Check out this case study on how ELM used the Fellowship of the Ring to create sales onboarding for a social media company.

Engagement also occurs when all of our senses are involved in the learning process. Create eLearning that employs audio and visual effects (short podcasts, engaging illustrations, narration, metaphors, and simulations), and get the learner to interact with the material using gamification, scenario-based knowledge checks, drag and drops, and other interactive elements. Gamification is a great tool for extrinsic motivation, or reward-driven behavior. We yearn for positive reinforcement and love earning rewards such as badges, progress markers, and win sounds. Incorporation of these elements results in engagement that leads to long-term retention.

Another way to engage learners is to honor their expertise by allowing them to test out of material they already know, provide opportunities for them to learn more on their own by adding links to related websites or advanced modules, and create discussion hubs where they can interact with other similarly-minded learners.

In the best of all worlds, training isn’t a one-time event: most eLearning designers prefer to space out learning over time to keep connections alive.

You have the tools, but how do you figure out what the learner really needs to do on the job?

In the corporate world, you want to develop critical thinkers, right? eLearning should be more than passing a test to get to the next step. If you want learners to be effective at their jobs, you need to focus on what you want learners to do on the job to achieve mastery—and why they should care.

At ELM, when we’re in the early planning stages of a project, our goal is to target specific actions people need to take or decisions they need to make on the job. We talk with the folks who are actually doing the work and do a needs analysis to figure out: What are the gaps? What are the problems? What decisions do they need to make? Are there misconceptions that need to be managed? This information informs our learner outcomes. We work backwards from those outcomes to determine the skills people need to practice and the foundational knowledge required to build those skills.

How does all of this planning link back to the science of learning? You want learning that develops skills and competencies, right? That means understanding what performance support tools learners need and creating ways for them to practice real-world tasks. This gets back to relevance and engagement—two important keys to learning that sticks.

We also want to manage cognitive load, so, in the case of self-paced courses, we like to use modules that are chunked into smaller pieces that the learner can access at their convenience. In virtual instructor-led training, we deliver modules in 30-90 minute sessions.

Microlearning is a great tool for chunking information because it allows learners to digest bite-sized pieces of information in a highly engaging and interactive way. Mobile learning is also a great tool for delivering bite-sized training delivered just-in-time. We also want to make sure our training is focused on what the learner needs to perform the tasks at hand, not cluttered with extraneous information.

We also don’t want the eLearning appearance to distract learners. Paying attention to complementary colors, as well as using bullets instead of full sentences, visual elements such as icons and directional shapes to direct the eye, and fonts that indicate the hierarchy of the material makes the eLearning easier to follow. Remember: white space is your friend.

There’s a lot of information out there on the science of learning. Immerse yourself in the fundamentals of Neurolearning Design in this ELM interactive ebook.