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Learning to Read Their Minds

Thanks to an explosion in brain research during the past 10 years, scientists know more about the brain than ever before. There also have been significant advancements in neuro-imaging equipment and analysis techniques. These advancements have allowed scientists to understand new aspects of memory, cognition and how we learn.

Progressive CLOs realize that an employee’s ability to acquire, retain and use key learning on the job is significantly affected by how the brain works, and they’re designing learning programs grounded in the latest science to attempt to turn every employee into a top performer. But getting maximum value from learning dollars by achieving learning transfer has been an elusive goal because programs are often delivered in ways that don’t map to how human beings are wired.
That is about to change.

Making Every Effort Count
As one of the largest professional accounting firms in Canada, Crowe MacKay needs its training to stick. Not only do employees need to be experts in corporate accounting and tax practices, but also they must keep up with constant changes to rules and regulations.

“Training is a big deal for us,” said Jackie Morton, Crowe’s director of human resources. “We invest in a lot of employee training, and it needed to improve in effectiveness.”

John Knoble, worldwide director of learning at Ethicon, also saw brain science as a learning strategy for the future. Ethicon, a global manufacturer of surgical sutures and medical devices, brings its sales team together for training each year, presenting employees with complex volumes of information necessary for peak sales performance. But how much of that information was retained a week, a month or even six months later?

To improve job performance, employees have to move knowledge into long-term memory and be able to easily retrieve it when needed. Both Morton and Knoble implemented a learning program that incorporates three cognitive strategies that have been shown to improve knowledge retention, and consequently, job performance. These strategies could have a significant effect on the way corporate learning is delivered.

Cognitive Strategy No. 1: Repeated Retrieval
Also known as the testing effect, repeated retrieval is the systematic retrieving of information from memory, such as when a person has to recall the answer to a series of questions. Asking someone to recall information was once a simple way to gauge acquired knowledge, but not necessarily to drive it. Research has demonstrated the act of retrieving information from memory — even as few as two times — actually produces a memory trace that is resistant to forgetting.

Think about it this way. When people slide down a snow hill, they create a groove in the snow. The more they slide down the hill, the deeper the groove gets, and the faster they slide. Pathways in the brain work the same way.

In a 2011 study, “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning Than Elaborative Studying With Concept Mapping,” Purdue University researchers Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt concluded that retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying. Elaborative studying is the long-form studying typically done in school and often in the work environment; it used to be considered one of the best learning techniques for retention.

Alice Kim at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest and York University is also performing research into memory and learning. Initial findings in her ongoing research comparing studying versus retrieval practice in a short learning session showed that participants recalled 38 percent of knowledge from retrieval practice versus 18 percent of knowledge from studying.

Employing retrieval practice in a learning environment doesn’t mean employees have to undergo sustained, rigorous testing. Companies such as Ethicon, Pep Boys and Capital BlueCross are finding success with Q&A programs, where employees are presented with a short series of questions, often between two and five per day. If employees answer a question correctly a certain number of times, they move on to new material. If the answer is incorrect, they’re given the correct answer, and will be periodically asked again until they master it.

Crowe MacKay has found success with repeated retrieval, implementing a series of daily questions to test employee knowledge. “We started by using it to reinforce previous training, then rolled it out further with a series of questions on specific topics where we knew knowledge was low,” Morton said. “We have seen dramatic lifts in knowledge retention that we expect will translate into bottom-line results.”

Cognitive Strategy No. 2: The Spacing Effect
Also known as interval reinforcement, the spacing effect indicates that information is better retained long term when it is presented repeatedly with specific time gaps between each repetition. This is in direct contrast to cramming, which involves studying large amounts of data continuously over a short time period.

In his 2006 study “Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says,” Will Thalheimer, founder of Work-Learning Research, determined that although learning and memory are strong during a training event, knowledge decay begins almost immediately afterward, and more than 90 percent of the information may be forgotten in as little as a month.

However, spaced learning on the job after a training event enhances how much people will remember and apply (Figure 1). “The closer in time learning is delivered to the situations when it is needed, the less forgetting will be a factor. The less forgetting, the more learners will be able to remember what they learned and apply it to their jobs.”

Kim’s research, launched using Thalheimer’s study as a base, determined that combining repeated retrieval with spacing increased recall results from 83 percent to 99 percent. And in their 2013 research study “Retrieval Practice (Testing) Effect,” researchers Henry Roediger and Andrew Butler found that combining feedback and repetition with retrieval can increase testing’s efficacy.

The spacing effect can be used practically in a work setting. For instance, an organization could implement short bursts of learning for as little as five minutes a day to continuously reinforce a prior learning event. Whether the initial knowledge is delivered through longer sessions in-classroom or through a learning management system, key learning points would be extracted and turned into questions that employees answer in short sessions every day. Questions are repeated over time, with appropriate spaces in between to solidify the neural pathways and knowledge in the brain.

Some companies find that presenting short bites of information in the absence of a prior learning event can be an effective way to drive knowledge. In either case, spacing allows organizations to create a continuous learning environment, weaving learning into every work day.

Ethicon’s Knoble said being able to continuously reinforce major learning events to drive product knowledge, and change critical information instantly to get it in front of employees every day, has fundamentally changed knowledge delivery effectiveness for the company’s sales professionals.

Cognitive Strategy No. 3: Deep Encoding
Deep encoding happens when newly learned information is linked to information already anchored in memory, or there is another trigger that causes a person to remember the information more readily. For example, the information provokes a strong emotional response.

Encoding can be enhanced three ways:

• First, build on existing cognitive structures by personalizing information to individuals based on their job responsibilities or demonstrated knowledge levels.
• Second, break information into smaller chunks that can be processed and linked more easily. Scientists now know the brain is highly effective at processing four to five bits of information at a time but becomes overwhelmed easily after that, making it harder to move information from working memory into long-term memory before it’s lost.
• Finally, make the learning experience engaging and fun to motivate employees to proactively look for learning opportunities, increasing receptivity and retention.
For example, Ethicon conducted a trial using interval reinforcement and repeated retrieval to deliver specific product training to a segment of its sales organization. To encourage engagement and participation, it gamified training and offered rewards points for successfully answering questions. The three-month trial achieved more than 95 percent voluntary participation and significantly increased product knowledge, and will be rolled out to the entire sales team.

“Not only are we seeing gratifying knowledge lifts, but we’ve found the sales reps’ confidence in this product increase, which is significant when it comes to selling the product,” Knoble said.

Blazing a Trail
CLOs who want to transform the corporate learning experience and elevate their strategic value to the organization will tap into the power of the human brain as the next frontier for innovation. Gone are the days of investing millions in learning programs that get lost the moment the learner leaves the experience.

Getting knowledge into long-term memory is the key to sustained employee performance improvement, and should be the overriding goal for learning organizations. New research into brain science offers a wealth of techniques proven to improve knowledge retention, and there are systems and products available to help put those techniques into practice. This will change strategies and practices for learning leaders, but the performance and financial implications of a more knowledgeable workforce are profound.

Carol Leaman is CEO of Axonify, a learning platform. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.