Recently, I was on a research panel which explored the role of science within a corporate training environment, and this month I wanted to share a couple of ideas that emerged from our conversations.

The importance of immediacy

Our colleague, Julie Dirksen, made a valuable point about the importance of delivering training close to the time that the learner will make use of it. Let me illustrate her logic: What would you pay me deliver an ice cream cone to your desk right now? A dollar? Two? Now, how much would you pay to have an ice cream cone delivered to you next year? A lot less I’ll bet. When things are deferred, they inevitably mean a lot less to us. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Or put more technically, people and other animals discount the value of a reward when it is delayed.

Julie made the great point that exactly the same logic applies to our training programs. Too often we provide training well in advance of the time that it is going to be needed. In turn, learners will inevitably discount the value of this information. And when they discount its value, it is very likely to be forgotten.

The take-home lesson for all of us is that we need to find ways to reduce the time between training and utilization. One way we can do this is by delivering online training just prior to need. This approach is best summarized by the quote, “Deliver 10 minutes of training, within five minutes of need, to an audience of one.”

The other way to reduce the time between training and utilization is to develop rehearsal opportunities for the hours and days after training. These opportunities can provide the learner with a chance to use the information either by answering questions or participating in a simulation.

Can science solve our training problems?

During our presentations, we were also asked about modern brain-related research that might provide dramatic improvements in the way we teach and learn. My colleagues talked about a variety of exciting new initiatives:

Brain plasticity

During most of the 20th century, researchers assumed that brain structures were relatively unchanging. More recent research, however, shows that the brain is relatively plastic and that it changes with experience. This “neuroplasticity” suggests the exciting possibility that we may someday be able to facilitate changes in neural pathways and synapses and thereby increase the rate of learning.

Virtual reality simulations

Virtual reality consists of a set of technologies that provide learners with immersive experiences, including images, sounds, and interactions, that simulate real world environments. The next generation of virtual worlds may allow students to immediately and safely apply their new learning by interacting with avatars immersed within the same environment.

Smart drugs

Smart drugs, also known as cognitive enhancers, purport to improve people’s ability to learn, retain, and apply information. Smart drugs, which have become increasingly popular in the last 10 years, can take the form of dietary supplements (so-called “nootropics”) or amphetamines (e.g., Ritalin). Although the evidence is marginal, entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley have shown great interest in this new approach to maximizing learning.

Each of these technologies is exciting and someday they may prove to enhance training and learning. That said, something about this discussion did not sit right with me. In our industry, it seems like we are always waiting for the next new and exciting technology to finally solve all of our problems. There is a very long history of technologies, everything from the printing press and copy machines to television and DVDs, that have failed to solve our fundamental problems of teaching and learning. In light of this history, I think we need to be skeptical when brain-science suggests a silver-bullet solution to our problems.

The good news

That said, I still think there is good news. Very good news. The fact is that we already know what needs to be done. One hundred years of scientific research in learning and cognitive psychology has already demonstrated processes that produce sustained learning and transfer. These processes, many of which have been discussed in this column, include foreshadowing, boosting, reinforcement, and effortful processing. What all of these have in common is that (1) they require significant effort on the part of the teacher and the learner, and (2) they result in increased retention and transfer.

The ride to the airport

This idea that good solutions are at hand came back to me during my late-night cab ride back to the airport. The driver was a sincere young man, with long hair and very tired eyes. His name was Lee, and when he heard that I had given a talk about the brain and learning, he had a question for me. “I was a good student in high school.” he explained, “but I just can’t concentrate in my college classes. I have heard about a device that can be implanted into my brain that will detect when my mind wanders and give me shocks that will help me concentrate. Do you think it would help me?”

I explained that, to my knowledge, this sort of device does not currently exist. In fact, I don’t think it will in the near future since we have no way of knowing when your mind is wandering and we would not even know how to shock the brain into paying attention to your school work. He was disappointed. Like people in our industry he wanted a simple and quick solution. And it was at that moment that I realized that there is probably an easy solution to his dilemma.

“Lee,” I said, “if you don’t mind me asking, how much sleep do you get every day?”

“Well not much,” he answered, “I work really crazy shifts driving this cab and taking classes.”

“And how is your diet? Do you eat healthy meals?”

He smirked and said, “Almost never. My girlfriend does not know how to cook and I eat junk most of the time.”

“How about exercise?”

“Nah,” he said, “I’d like to, but there is no time.”

“And what about caffeine and other drugs? Do you use these very often?”

He pulled at his hair as he sized me up in the rear view mirror. After a few seconds he said, “Well yeah, I do... A lot, I guess. I constantly drink coffee to stay awake and then I drink and smoke to calm down at night.”

I waited until we were stopped at a red light and I held his eyes in the mirror. “Lee,” I said, “the good news is that you don’t need brain surgery to improve your concentration. You just need to apply some common sense. You need to get good sleep. You need to eat well and get exercise And you need to cut down using so many drugs. When you do these things and take care of yourself, you will be amazed at how quickly you regain your ability to concentrate.”

The problem is not all that complicated

It is striking to me how people, smart people, encounter challenging problems and lose sight of obvious, common sense solutions. Lee does not need brain surgery or drugs. Instead, he just needs to apply the tried and true methods of living a healthy, happy, and sustainable lifestyle. The same logic applies in the training industry. We do not need a silver bullet such as smart drugs or 3-D simulators. The fact is that we just need to actually apply the well-researched methods of learning, memory, and retention. And when we finally do so, we will be able to produce sustainable learning, retention, and transfer within our organizations.

Digging deeper

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  • As it happens, a PhD dissertation explores the way people and animals discount the value of a reward when that reward is either delayed or uncertain. It turns out that there are remarkable similarities across species in the shape of the discounting function. All animals that have been tested seem to share the identical neural-mechanisms when it comes to measuring the value of a stimulus.
  • I began this piece by mentioning Julie Dirksen’s panel contributions on the topic of discounting. You can check out a recent piece by Dirksen concerning learning and urgency.