Why Getting Bums on Seats is Easier than Bolting Learning to the Brain

The hard part is not getting people to attend training or take part in learning experiences (though it isn’t always easy!)

For learning and development staff, HR, trainers and managers, having it applied to the daily job is trickier. But why?

For those who like a bit of theory, here goes..

Not Quite Finished

When people wait on tables in a restaurant, they only have to remember what’s happening next: The process of taking an order – mentally or in writing, telling the kitchen and taking the food to the table, is a short.

When it’s been paid for, the waiting staff can forget the order entirely. The unpaid bill, however, leaves a final task to be done before the subject is closed.

So, based on studies of service staff in Berlin, in 1927 Dr Bluma Zeigarnik concluded that when people have closure it isn’t top of their minds anymore.

This explains why we can’t recall academic information the day after an exam even though the night-before cramming was remembered on the day. This works for exams, because our performance on the day is the measured output.

But what about at work? We want to apply learning to the day-to-day. So according to Zeigarnik’s theory – we need to leave something unfinished for it to be remembered; a suspense; a problem.

We’re more likely to remember an incomplete task, so what are the implications in learning?

Examples could be:

  • An action plan to be finished
  • An incomplete puzzle
  • Leaving a final fact out deliberately and making participants seek the answer afterwards
  • Something that hasn’t happened yet and isn’t predictable e.g. An email full of photos 

There’s the potential, of course, to irritate people who like things completed so this needs to be handled carefully, confidently, and intentionally.

Perhaps, whilst we intend to complete our scheduled content in a workshop, seminar or course, it’s more important to take the lead from learners.  Allowing time to talk and reflect may have more impact than the completed scheduled subject.

Odd One Out

Hedwig Von Restorff proposed that it was the odd one out in a group of objects that was remembered during memory experiments. Her 1933 research refers to the impact of something being different, known as The Von Restorff Effect. 

For making learning stick, then we can:

  • Present a range of scenarios, where the one to remember is distinct from others
  • Underline how a specific desired behaviour is quite different from the undesired behaviour
  • Colour-code graphics and models so that the “answer” is prominent by not fitting in
  • An unexpected question in an after-workshop survey

But we need to be mindful of not whitewashing other important learning. The flipside of this effect is that when a single thing is so different, then the rest of the group is forgotten.

Element of Surprise

Shelly Taylor and Susan Fiske, in 1978, introduced the Salience Hypothesis, which, in layman’s terms means that our attention is captured by more salient, surprising and distinctive stimuli, thus influencing our learning.

Applying this to learning, we can:

Introduce the element of the unexpected, in the environment, the method of explanation or exploration, for example:

  • Getting participants to design the learning experience rather than a “trainer” plan it all
  • Giving a treat – we expect to work during a training experience
  • Using (safe) shock tactics – introduce unexpected stimuli in the form of a noise or smell
  • Afterwards, landing something in their inbox or postbox when they’d least expect it

“A nice surprise” is perhaps the impact to aim for.

Even just a couple of these tactics would add a fresh element to most learning experiences. If we leave a little unfinished, if we inject some surprise, and if we organise some content to be the “odd one out” then short-term memory should play in our favour.

Combined with simple plans, that make it possible to easily integrate behaviours and new habits back at work, these can factor highly in making learning mean more than an on-seat statistic.

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