Bring the Science of Learning into Your Employee Training

Imagine 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. 

This scenario is common across workplaces because, in many cases, employee training is created without much thought about how learners learn best. By applying the latest insights from cognitive science and neuroscience, we can revolutionize employee training and unlock the full potential of your workforce. 

The science of learning is understanding the inner workings of our knowledge acquisition and using that information to design impactful training that truly sticks.

How our brains like to learn

Our brains crave repetition and patterns, like a catchy melody that gets stuck in your head, but with a bit of the unexpected thrown in to wake us up to alternatives we haven’t considered. 

We are also, of course, emotional creatures. We seek an emotional connection to what we’re learning, a sense of relevance and meaning that ties new information to our existing knowledge and experiences. 

Think of the first time you aced a challenging task at work—the pride and satisfaction fueled your desire to learn more. We 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 growth.

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 learning more meaningful and engaging.

The multitasking myth

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 environment—free from distractions, with calming color schemes, maybe with background music or meaningful visuals. 

Think of entering a serene library compared to a crowded, noisy coffee shop. When our brains are stressed out due to too many distractions, they’re reactive instead of receptive to learning, which shuts down the learning process altogether.

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.

This is where a well-designed eLearning ecosystem can be incredibly helpful. Imagine a learning environment that dynamically adjusts to your cognitive load, offering bite-sized information when needed and providing opportunities for practice and reinforcement to solidify knowledge in long-term memory. 

An eLearning ecosystem can integrate various learning tools like microlearning modules, interactive simulations, performance support resources, and social learning features to create a holistic and engaging experience.

How does understanding the science of learning translate into eLearning?

If our brains crave repetition and patterns but 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.

Story-based learning

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 that angel’s cocktail by using metaphors and images to place the learner in the middle of the action. Check out this instructional storytelling case study on how ELM used the Fellowship of the Ring to create sales onboarding for a social media company.

Sense engagement

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, and simulations) and get the learner to interact with the material using scenario-based knowledge checks, drag and drop, and other interactive elements. 

Gamified learning

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.

Prior knowledge

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. 

Immersive and interactive learning

Now, let’s consider two key pillars of effective eLearning that apply the science of learning principles: immersive and interactive learning.

Immersive learning

Imagine stepping into a virtual reality simulation where you practice delivering a sales pitch to a demanding client. Immersive eLearning can transport learners into highly realistic scenarios, triggering emotional responses and reinforcing knowledge through hands-on experience. It’s like stepping into a video game where you’re the protagonist, tackling real-world challenges and mastering new skills.

Interactive learning

While immersive learning offers deep engagement, interactive learning focuses on active participation. Think engaging with quizzes, drag-and-drop activities, and branching narratives that adapt to your choices. These interactive elements keep learners actively involved, reinforcing understanding and testing their knowledge in real time.

Of course, the most effective eLearning often blends both approaches. Imagine combining VR simulations with interactive branching narratives, allowing learners to navigate realistic scenarios while making choices and witnessing the consequences. This hybrid approach activates multiple learning pathways, catering to diverse learning styles and maximizing knowledge retention.

Ultimately, understanding the science of learning allows us to design eLearning experiences that are not just informative but truly engaging and impactful. By incorporating immersive and interactive elements, we can tap into the natural learning preferences of our brains, leading to a more effective and lasting learning journey for employees.

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 training needs analysis to figure out what the gaps are. 

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.

Interactive learning techniques

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 leads back to relevance and engagement—two important keys to learning that stick.

For this reason, we leverage various interactive eLearning techniques:

  • Microlearning: We break down information into bite-sized modules delivered in an engaging and interactive format, allowing learners to digest and apply knowledge in smaller, more manageable chunks.
  • Mobile learning: We provide just-in-time training on mobile devices, ensuring learners have access to essential information and practice opportunities right when they need them.
  • Branching scenarios: We create interactive simulations where learners make choices and experience the consequences, fostering critical thinking and decision-making skills.
  • Gamification: We incorporate game-like elements like points, badges, and leaderboards to motivate and engage learners, turning practice into a rewarding experience.

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.

Remember, visual design also plays a role in fostering interaction. Complementary colors, bullet points, clear icons, and well-chosen fonts all help guide the learner’s eye and make the material easier to navigate. White space helps avoid overwhelming learners and encourages focus.

Imagine an eLearning module where learners are presented with a real-world case study in their specific field. They’re then able to choose from different approaches to handle the situation, seeing the potential consequences of each choice unfold through branching narratives. 

This immersive experience not only reinforces critical thinking and decision-making skills but also builds confidence and a sense of agency in tackling real-world challenges.

Furthermore, interactive learning allows for personalization and differentiation. By leveraging branching narratives, adaptive learning algorithms, and learner-driven choices, eLearning can cater to individual learning styles and paces. This ensures that each learner is presented with the most relevant information and activities, maximizing their engagement and knowledge retention.

Wrapping up

Ultimately, interactive learning isn’t just about fancy tricks and bells and whistles. It’s about harnessing the power of engagement and active participation to transform eLearning from a passive experience into a dynamic, personalized journey of skill development and mastery. When done right, interactive learning becomes a catalyst for critical thinking, problem-solving, and confident performance on the job.

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.