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How bad learning drains/pains the brain

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


How bad learning drains/pains the brain

How many “knowing-doing” gaps did you deal with during the recent holiday season?

Because of calendar quirks, I experienced two gaps—one pleasurable and one painful.  

On the pleasure side, even though I know better than to gorge on unhealthy food choices, I didn’t always have the willpower to stop my hands from delivering delicious morsels to my mouth during the Halloween to New Year’s Day season.

As for the other “knowing-doing” gap, who knows when it will close? To paraphrase the best-selling author Dan Pink, a major disconnect exists between what science knows and what organizations do around adult education.

That’s  what I experienced in the last half of 2015 when I had to renew one of my professional designations by taking and passing a series of seven modules, all delivered by webinars.

When the journey began, I knew about the AGES model from the Neuroleadership Institute. The model describes how to make learning stick. It’s based on neuroscience research about how adults learn, including how to optimize recall. (The latter is necessary if you want to apply what you learn, rather than just pass a test.)

AGES stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing.  All four need to be present for optimal learning.

The NeuroLeadership Journal published Learning that Lasts through AGES, its first paper on the topic in 2010.  Four years later, the Journal featured new findings in the article The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model.

Knowing what I did about AGES, I was concerned that my professional association would do the exact opposite of what AGES advised. That’s exactly what happened to an extreme. The module designers and instructors also seemed clueless about basic brain health, physical wellbeing and 21st century cultural norms.

Based on the four elements of AGES, here’s how my experience unfolded, compared to what should have happened:

1.Attention depletion instead of 20-minute chunks. Many good-intentioned instructional designers and teachers take attention for granted. But it’s an extremely limited and fragile resource. It’s impossible for adults to pay close attention to a single topic for more than 20 minutes at a time, according to the research. If you want to get and keep people’s attention, you need to mix things up with lectures, discussions, storytelling, question and answers, breaks, etc.

Each of my webinars was two hours long, delivered from 9 – 11 pm on Thursday nights.  After a long day, I was depleted, which made it nearly impossible to focus for five minutes on the technical material we were covering, much less 120 minutes straight.  Even though I knew better, I started multi-tasking, which made it even harder to pay attention.

2.Generation squatting rather than ownership. Information is easier to recall when our brain makes multiple connections in different ways. That means if students can process information in a variety of ways multiple times, including interpreting it, the content will embed in the brain region that’s responsible for embedding memories.

However, my instructors emphasized explicit learning, namely copying and pasting information from source documents and reciting it. Whenever any of us tried to ask questions about the concepts in a way that helped us apply them to our experiences in the field, we were told we needed to get back on task to review the prepared technical material.  We didn’t “own” what we were learning, we had squatting rights instead.

3.Emotional desert instead of pleasant social interactions. It’s easier to learn and remember if you’re feeling positive about your learning environment and experience, rather than fearful. It also helps to interact with others to make the learning as social as possible.

In my situation, it felt as if we students were stranded on a desert island without any food, water or anything pleasurable. Most of the instructors didn’t even introduce themselves, or ask the students to introduce themselves. Instead, they jumped into the technical subject matter with a “Father knows best” attitude. There were no opportunities to be social except for the few rebels (me included) who tried to use the chat function to make an emotional connection with our colleagues.

4.Spacing disconnects instead of distributed learning. Spacing out learning is one of the most powerful actions you can take, especially if you can sleep between sessions, but this feature is counterintuitive for many. The value of spacing out learning over cramming is that it gives your brain an opportunity to struggle to remember, which better embeds the learning.

Almost all of the webinar modules required pre-course work that we had to complete and turn in two weeks to two days ahead of time. This should have helped space the material to improve our recall. But most of the instructors didn’t make tight, specific connections between the pre-course work and the webinar. Some instructors didn’t even review or return the pre-course work so it was like we did it in a vacuum.

Almost three weeks after I finished my seventh of seven webinars, my brain still hurts.

The pain increased after I read both of the AGES paper for the NeuroLeadership Institute’s brain-based facilitation pilot course that starts this week.

The brain-friendly facilitation course will certainly introduce me to other improvements that my professional organization could make to its webinar series—if they were interested in getting better not just older.  

Oh well, I’ll at least be even more motivated and skilled to make AGES work for me and any workshops I design and facilitate.

May your learning events in 2016 be memorable in a positive way!