How do you design effective learning experiences? Andy Young looks at brain-friendly learning, experiential learning, and desirable difficulty—and how UK organisations stack up.

As we’ve explored in this blog series, effective learning is the combination of ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning that’s delivered in the flow of work and inspires people to unlock their potential. It’s less about occasional training to close specific skill gaps, and more aligned with a mindset of lifelong learning. It’s fun and joyful, meaningful and inclusive, and it inspires people to achieve their best and contribute to the organisation they work for.

Learning experience moves centre stage

For most people, the learning experience is an important part of the overall employee experience, and it has multiple layers.

  • First, there’s the day-to-day work experience. To an increasing degree, employees want work that is meaningful, varied, challenging, and even fun. Allowing them to direct their roles, jobs, and learning can enrich their work experience and open up a whole new level of performance.
  • Second, there’s how the company handles the moments that matter. This might mean someone’s return to work after a leave of absence, or adjusting to a new role or new project. Providing contextual, personalised learning to support these moments can make people feel included, important, and safe.
  • Finally, there’s the relationship between the employee and the company. There’s often an understanding of what the employees are expected to contribute to the relationship, and less so what the employer’s contributions are. In a learning context, these include, but aren’t limited to, providing learning to facilitate stimulating work; learn, develop and advance; and tap into an inner purpose and culture of lifelong learning.

An effective learning experience demonstrates that an organization is investing in its employees, and that employee contributions matter. They can help people feel productive and valuable, and reinforce their personal and professional identities accordingly.

Brain-friendly learning

All this raises the question: How do you design effective learning experiences?

First, we can leverage science and our understanding of what facilitates learning in order to design stickier, more durable learning experiences. Brain-friendly learning is engaged, impactful learning that’s centred in experiences that make physiological changes to the brain.

Brain-friendly learning is rooted in behavioural science—a multi-disciplinary study that brings in various elements of psychology (cognitive, developmental, social, and organisational, to name a few), neuroscience, behavioural economics, sociology, and biochemistry. We systematically study human behaviour, and apply science and experiments to understand people’s behaviours—and make change stick.

With these insights we can create more durable learning experiences. And by experimenting and reimagining learning, we can design and deliver activities that create more satisfied and engaged learners. It’s the difference between checking off a box and achieving true transformation.

Learn by doing (or, why experiential learning is so effective)

Experiential learning captures our attention because it is immersive and hands-on. Learners are active participants, not passive recipients of knowledge. In corporate settings, this might look like design thinking in the boardroom or simulation training tools for more technical roles.

A growing body of research in neuroscience and the behavioral sciences confirms how these techniques lead to faster and deeper learning. A 2015 study at the University of Chicago used brain scans to show that hands-on learning activates sensory and motor-related areas of the brain. Students who learned this way—experiencing a science concept by doing experiments, for example—understood more and scored better on tests.

And the US National Training Laboratory found that retention rates for training through VR are 75 percent, far above the 10 percent for reading-based learning and the 5 percent for lecture-style learning.

Desirable difficulty in learning

When learning is active and ‘effortful’, the brain forms new connections more easily, according to Washington University professors of psychology and brain sciences, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel. They also found that students learn more when they are forced to solve a problem rather than being taught the solution. Making and correcting mistakes also improves skills retention.

A multidisciplinary team of designers and behavioural scientists at Melbourne’s RMIT University have designed Sans Forgetica, a font that is intentionally hard to read. The font creates ‘desirable difficulty’ that prompts the brain to engage in deeper processing, which has been linked to better retention and better memory recall.

Amplify human connection in learning

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the future of work is not just about developing people’s technological skills. It’s about cultivating the full range of skills, from the creative to the complex cognitive capabilities that the future workforce will need.

As digital learning continues to proliferate, it will necessarily be balanced with the human connection. Otherwise, we risk tech-clash: a mismatch between what people expect and need out of technology, and what they actually get.

Digital will be to serve as an invisible enabler of social learning. People get emotional feedback when they’re around other people, and effective learning taps into this to connect emotion with cognition. For example, after a period of analytical thinking, our social brain kicks in automatically and we crave social interaction—and that in turn activates the reward centre of our brain. Details like these can make the difference between learning that sticks—and learning that doesn’t.

Moving mindsets and behaviours

It’s important to move the needle on skills and knowledge, and equally important to change mindsets and behaviours that are holding organisations back. In an upcoming blog series, I’ll be sharing how behavioural science can help you find the fuel that drives change, and remove the friction that holds it back.

How UK organisations stack up

Recent research from Accenture and the CIPD shows that on-the-job training is the most commonly reported learning method and was used by 61 percent of organisations in the last year.

The survey reveals that larger organisations (over 250 employees) provide more experiential learning than SMEs do. Half of large organisations provide apprenticeships, half provide mentoring, and 39 percent offer job rotation, secondment, and job shadowing. In comparison, SMEs offered these capabilities 15 percent, 30 percent, and 16 percent of the time, respectively.

In addition, larger employers are more likely to use augmented and virtual reality (23 percent, versus 11 percent of SMEs) and to deliver learning via mobile devices (20 percent, versus 5 percent of SMEs).

In action: Constant innovation at Vitality

Vitality offers award-winning health and life cover that aims to make people healthier. At Vitality, everything happens at pace and innovation is a constant. For example, the subsidiary of Discovery has increased head count by more than 40 percent among front-line staff in the last four years in the UK, and has expanded the number of partners they work with. And the typical learning project is designed, delivered to over 900 frontline employees in just seven days.

The learning team reports on three key metrics: average number of projects a single person on the learning team can deliver; average number of training minutes per intervention; and whether employees agree they have been given tools and training to do their jobs effectively. And the results? They’ve seen a 300 percent increase in the number of projects each learning team member can deliver. Training minutes are down by 17 percent, and 96 percent of people felt they had the tools they needed to do their job.

And the learning team has gotten better, too. They are able to prepare people better using fewer training hours—they achieve more in less time.

What leaders are doing

What actions are helping leaders close the gap between intent and action to create a culture of learning?

  • Leaders build learning into an effective employee experience. They understand that it means thinking about how learning can enhance someone’s day-to-day work, support the moments that matter, and strengthen the employer-employee relationship.
  • Leaders offer more creative and innovative learning experiences. These experiences are also delivered in a way that keeps learners coming back.
  • Leaders are providing experiential learning via cutting-edge platforms that encompass the following characteristics:
    • Modular, small chunks of learning that can be deployed just when a learner needs it, and consumed quickly 
    • Accessible anytime, anywhere, on any platform 
    • Social, so learners can share progress and make recommendations for peers. 
    • Context-sensitive and adaptive to the needs of individual learners. 
    • Curated by subject matter experts to leverage the best available knowledge. 
    • Gamified to encourage a sense of fun, achievement, and friendly competition 
    • Delivering just the right levels of challenge and engagement to create a sense of flow for learners. 

 

What you can do

What can your organisation do to close the gap? Here are some recommendations.

  • Design experience into lifelong learning programs. Benefit from advances in neuroscience and the deeper, faster, more personalized learning brought by new technologies like VR and AI.
  • Build or buy. Consider the balance between in-house learning, using experiential techniques, and partnering with specialist providers of experience-centered, tech-driven courses.
  • Embed experiential learning into everyday work. From design thinking and simulation tools that can improve decision-making, to on-the-job learning and apprenticeships that can reinforce recruitment and retention models, experiential techniques can improve ongoing business performance.

Learning from life

Learning and work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Think about what people are doing outside work. They’re consumers; they’re using phones and voice assistants; they’re watching Netflix and listening to Spotify. Think about the immersive experience that Netflix created with Black Mirror, by soliciting audience feedback to guide future episodes and creating an experience that was both engaging and social. Think about how Pinterest enables people to save and collect ideas, so that they can return to them and synthesise new connections. Think about how much we learn from our colleagues, parents, children, and neighbours in the course of everyday life.

How could you leverage elements from people’s everyday lives to entertain, engage people’s brains, and create learning that lasts—and that drives impact to your business?

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