2018 Learning Science Overview for Training Leaders of Tomorrow

Companies are investing more and more money into talent development, spending $19.7 million in 2018 compared with $17 million in 2017. But do these investments make any difference if employees forget up to 90% of obtained knowledge within a year? They do if L&D initiatives take into account the learning science, in this way significantly decreasing the forgetting curve, freeing up hidden brain power, and boosting the learning process as a whole.

“There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does,” says Dan Pink, a behavioral science expert and career analyst, in his TED talk. Due to this ignorance, corporate training decreases the effectiveness level of L&D initiatives.

Here are five of the latest learning science findings that will help training leaders of tomorrow to get rid of the mismatch.

Cognitive offloading

The subject of cognitive offloading has come into play when science began to do research on how the Internet affects our memory. When people have easy and fast access to any kind of information, they see no point in remembering things because they can look them up at any time. In addition, people begin to overestimate their factual knowledge, confusing it with readily available information, as the Yale study explains. But this is just one side of the coin.

Living in a world of constant information overload, it’s difficult to get the hang of how to retain all the necessary things you’ve learned a week ago while not forgetting about what you have discovered today. That’s where cognitive offloading and memory inhibition (the process of narrowing down memories that are irrelevant to the current situation) come on stream. According to psychologists, these processes facilitate the selectivity of rapid and efficient recollection.

However, what about the important information you learned two weeks ago that you’re now gradually forgetting once you start learning something new? This is when it’s a good idea to use a variety of “memory saving tools” from simple sticky notes to hands-on learning platforms that allow one to store all important information in one place and access it whenever there’s a need. Studies by Risko and Gilbert suggest that the use of technology “subvert[s] our brain’s cognitive limits” since people are capacity limited. The offloading of previously learned information to an external tool has two key benefits. Firstly, recent experiments show that it protects us from a negative transfer, the interference of the previous knowledge with new learning. For example, when learners know that previously learned material is within hand’s reach (mobile learning), it lowers the brain’s workload, making it possible to literally receive new material with an “empty” mind. Secondly, it reduces anxiety related to the concern that we might forget something important. The less stress we experience, the better we retain information, as studies show.

Deep learning

In the context of humans’ cognitive ability, deep learning is not connected with machine learning methods. It derives from the notion of deep work which is linked to the necessity of staying away from distractions for long stretches of time to focus on solving cognitively challenging tasks and do meaningful work.

Once in a while, we all experience this feeling of flow when we’re fully absorbed by a task we’re doing, losing one’s sense of time, and not paying attention to anything else. Usually, it results in productive outcomes. However, the feeling of flow is arbitrary and occasional. Why? To reach this state, we need to switch to a deep work mode. In turn, this mode demands focus. Learning science says that, on average, it takes us 25 minutes of focus without distraction to reach a state of flow. At the same time, employees check their email 36 times an hour. Yeah, it seems like not a big deal at first, but these constant distractions prevent our brain from reaching the state of flow.

When it comes to deep learning, things get even more complicated. Science has discovered that learning is linked to biological and chemical processes that happen in the human brain. Our brain works on 90 to 120-minute cycles called the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC). Thus, if we’re active for 90 minutes, we need a 20-minute break afterward. This cycle influences our attention, performance, memory, and cognition, meaning that we can’t be equally active and productive throughout the day. That’s why it’s important to match our peak activity with learning. In addition, we need to take into account the lack of time for learning and constant distractions in the workplace. Therefore, short, relevant, and just-in-time chunks of learning material will be most suitable for deep learning, as they don’t require much time to process and can be applied to practice right away.


The Nudge Theory was initially introduced by Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist and professor at the University of Chicago, who believed that “by knowing how people think, it’s easier to make them choose what is best for them, their families and society.” Primarily, it focused on the political, societal, and financial aspects of life. For example, Spain has an opt-out system which presupposes that all citizens are automatically registered for organ donation unless they choose to refuse. That’s the reason why Spain leads the world in organ donation. The explanation is simple: people want to do good, so most of them wouldn’t mind if their organs will be used after death to save someone else’s life. In addition, they don’t need to register to become an organ donor. Thaler adds that nudging works on the principle: “If you want to encourage people to do something, make it easy.”

The same principle is applied to learning. A brain-based learning strategy can nudge individuals to take actions that will lead to successful training completion. For nudges to be most effective, behavioral scientists have developed a set of conditions that come after L&D professionals have defined the behavior they want to instill and barriers that stand in the way (e.g. a lack of tech skills).

  1. Simplicity. The fewer hurdles employees face, the more non-coercive their learning will be and the fewer chances of them giving up halfway through. A positive learning experience means a thought-out format and flow of training content, intuitive use of a learning platform, and a smart search engine within a platform, among other qualities.
  2. Reminders. We tend to forget even important things due to high overload and stress. Nudges are ways to refocus people’s attention to what matters. Simple notifications about the necessity of completing a learning activity are one of the ways to use the power of reminders.
  3. Social influence. People are social creatures, and in some cases, they want to imitate the behavior of others to succeed. If employees know that their fellow workers are going through learning activities and upgrading their skills to improve their expertise, it will put social pressure to do likewise.
  4. Availability. Learning without any limits. It’s all about having 24/7 access to training content and using it whenever necessary.
  5. Contextualization. Relevant and personalized content is what makes learning meaningful. Learners should not be overwhelmed with resources and options as to what to learn, as it will only create extra distractions. The key is to knowing what they need and limiting recommendations to training content that meets current needs.

Nudging in learning is a good way to influence employees’ behavior while at the same time leaving the option to choose.

Learning agility

At its simplest, learning agility is the ability to quickly develop new behaviors or adapt current knowledge and skills to solving new challenges. Its two core constituents are speed and flexibility, as Scott DeRue points out. Speed deals with how quickly a person can digest new information and get the best out of it. Flexibility relates to the ability to smoothly abandon an old behavior in favor of a new one to meet current needs. This skill is crucial for any company to be able to navigate in the future of fluid jobs and not-yet-existing job titles.

Following the necessity to foster learning agility, Deloitte has established the VUCA. This term is used by the U.S. military to describe the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous landscapes where soldiers operate. Today, such landscapes can be easily translated to the workplace, since the business environment is constantly changing. The gist is that no matter what your company will evolve into, your employees will use their knowledge to figure out how to approach a new situation.

To develop learning agility in employees, companies can fall back on five dimensions.

  1. Change agility. It presupposes experimentation, curiosity, taking reasonable risks, and being outside one’s comfort zone.
  2. Mental agility. It deals with breaking complex challenges into smaller pieces to process every step of a solution, critical thinking, and reasoning.
  3. People agility. It’s all about knowledge sharing, teamwork, collaborative problem-solving, and brainstorming.
  4. Results agility. It’s about drawing conclusions from the outcomes, performance analysis, learning from failures and taking successful steps.
  5. Self-Awareness. It deals with self-reflection, the understanding of one’s own capabilities, and setting goals for personal and professional development.

By developing these five dimensions, companies will gain employees with an open mindset, who are constantly looking for new developmental opportunities and finding creative ways to solve challenges.

Emotional learning

Emotions are tightly interconnected with our memory, perception, cognition, and attention. Science proves that emotions derived from the environment we live in, experiences, or the relationships we have with friends and family shape the physiological structure of our brains over time. Moreover, information that has a high emotional value for us is considered to be important, thus, it is retained better.

While designing learning content, L&D professionals have to tap into how the human brain works. Dr. Dror, an expert in cognitive neuroscience from Harvard University, says that our brain can’t process all the incoming information no matter how focused we are. Because of this, context (the environment) and the way you present information (good or bad experiences) play a critical role in retention.

Not all learning by doing is created equal. You need a challenge. You need surprise as it shocks the brain. It captures cognitive attention. Emotional learning is a continuum, from subtle to extreme. A subtle thing is that you can tell them [learners] a personal story. It engages them and uses episodic memory. The next step, show them photos. More extreme on the continuum is for learners to experience errors (sabotage!). The power of error in the brain is that we remember the errors and it changes our behavior.

The key is to present the information in a way that echoes in learners’ emotions, whether it’d be through storytelling, visuals, or lessons learned from mistakes.

By applying the behavioral and cognitive principles of learning to employee training, we will be able to close the gap between what learning science knows and what business does to reduce the forgetting curve, reinforce knowledge, and make learning more meaningful.

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