By Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience
How do we learn and remember best? And how do we do this especially when the material that we have to learn is quite dull – as most of the new information that is required in a regulatory environment can be. Lessons learned about the brain mechanisms involved in memory, learning and motivation can help to shed light on better ways to learn dull stuff.
An important first step is to consider the evolutionary origins of learning and memory.
Learning evolved because animals need to be able to adapt to new situations in order to survive (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2009; Schacter, Addis & Bruckner, 2007). In order to adapt, we need to extract the most important information for survival quickly from each new situation. That means we have to be able to determine what is important in new situations. Importance of events is assessed in two ways: Information is stored about events that have high emotional significance (the more intensely we feel about what happened, the more important the event); and information is stored if it is repeated often (the more often something happens, the more important that must be to remember).
In the workplace, it can be hard to create strong emotion when learning new material which is inherently dull. However, many people have a competitive nature that causes them to invest emotional energy in being correct. Thus, we can add emotion to an experience by providing an opportunity to test our knowledge. Employees are likely to feel happy when they get a question correct – especially if they perceive the question as difficult. But also employees are likely to be irritated when they get a question wrong – especially if they feel they knew the right answer all along. Thus, whether they know the answer or not, we add emotion to the experience and we learn better when either negative or positive emotions are activated (LeBar & Cabeza, 2006). Thus, both the positive and negative emotional reactions that are generated when answering questions help to make the knowledge more memorable.
Getting the time between repetitions right is important.
We can also help people remember new information better by repeating the questions that employees get wrong (Lamprecht & LeDoux, 2004). Getting the time between repetitions right is important. Research has shown that repetition which is spaced in time is more effective than repetition which is provided immediately (Godbole,
Delaney & Verkoeijen, 2014). Repeating questions across a 24-48-hour period (spaced repetition) therefore increases the effectiveness of the learning. In addition, when information is repeated in the format of a question that has to be answered, learning is more effective than when the same information is simply re-presented (Roediger & Smith, 2012).
There are three stages involved when learning new information: the two obvious stages are that we need to code the information in memory and we need to be able to recall the information when we want to use it. Repetition of information increases the efficiency of both of these processes (Godbole, et al, 2014).
The third process that is involved in remembering new information is consolidation which moves new information from short term to long term memory. Recent research has demonstrated that the time at which our brain consolidates information best is when we are sleeping (Bell, Kawadri, Simone & Wiseheart, 2014). By spacing the repetition of new information across days with a night’s sleep between, we will consolidate while we sleep thus increasing the retention of new learning.
This suggests that we can help people to learn boring stuff by asking questions which are spaced in time and that are separated by sleep. The emotion created by getting the question right or wrong, and the repetition of questions that were answered wrongly aid the learning of even the dullest of material.
One of the aspects of the human brain which has allowed us to survive as a species is our natural ability to create new solutions. This ability is provoked by our curiosity and desire for novelty (Krebs, Schott & Duzel, 2009). If things remain the same in all aspects of our lives all of the time, we tend to become bored and seek new
opportunities. Since curiosity is naturally rewarding, we are naturally encouraged to explore (Gottlieb, Oudeyer, Lopes & Baranes, 2013). Research which imaged the brain while participants were answering trivia questions, demonstrated that the reward centres in the brain are activated when the answer to a question is anticipated (Kang, Hsu, Krajbich, Lowenstein, McClure et al., 2009). Imagine that you were asked to consider a question like:
What is the largest rodent in the world? Or Who played Kojak in the hit TV series?
What this research demonstrated was that, whether you know the answers to these questions or not, you are rewarded by an increase in the activity of the dopamine reward centres in the brain. Thus, every time an employee engages with a new question, and begins to consider the answer, the dopamine reward centre is activated (Kang et al, 2009). Thus, asking employees questions about regulatory material is much more effective than having them learn this directly since the questions make the material more rewarding!
Since the law says that regulatory material has to be trained, curiosity can be used within training sessions by using problem based learning (Prosser & Sze, 2014). Instead of just providing information, the training revolves around solving scenario-based problems designed to highlight the required learning. Participants can be encouraged to search for the regulations that would be required in order to correctly respond to a particular enquiry. After the training, it is then possible to use curiosity again by providing on-going reinforcement of the learning through providing further scenarios as questions that require answers.
Motivation to Learn
There are individual differences in what motivates people (Higgins, 2000). Some are motivated to avoid pain (extrinsic motivation). In this case, providing a means to allow them to assess their performance in relation to whether they are competent enough to keep their job, not fail to be promoted, or not be shamed by being the worse performing individual will be motivating. Providing feedback in the form of their answers to questions that are relevant to their role is a great way to show that these people are performing at a sufficiently high level to prevent this pain.
Other people are motivated by achieving a goal that they have set for themselves and so have intrinsic motivation. There are at least three main aspects of a task that make it intrinsically motivating (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Motivation increases when individuals have choice in whether they perform a particular task (autonomy), when individuals have the relevant skills and knowledge to complete a task (competence) and when there is social engagement with others through the task (relatedness). Is there any way that we can add autonomy, competence and/or related to learning boring stuff?
While choosing which task to perform is important, a sense of autonomy can also be created by giving people a choice of how to, or when to, do something (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Most people that engage with quizzes because they enjoy answering the questions and so choose to do this. By allowing employees control of their own learning (autonomy) and they are likely to be more motivated to learn.
By providing employees with the opportunity to learn, they are able to increase their capability to do their job – which is intrinsically motivating (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Questions which provide immediate feedback help the learning process by giving employees information about how well they are performing – an instant measure of their own competence. Individuals find out which bits of their job they know well and also where they need to improve. Indeed, this form of testing differentiates between situations in which an employee doesn’t know thinks they know and really knows the answer. In the first case, they will get lots of answers wrong and so will get feedback on the areas that they need to revise. If they think they know the answer, it will take longer to guess than and some answers will be wrong and this feedback will indicate that they are sometimes guessing. If they really know the answers, they will answer quickly and correctly. This provides confirmation and positive affirmation that the
employee really know his/her stuff!
Finally, by creating a means to compare scores with others on the team, this sort of testing can increase the feeling of camaraderie, and build both personal and team engagement. This adds to the motivation to participate through relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
Thus, testing through quizzes increases the motivation to learn dull material by increasing autonomy, competence and relatedness – all of which are aspects of intrinsic motivation.
This suggests that any learning – whether material that is highly engaging or deadly dull – can be learnt better by allowing people feedback on how well they are performing and by customizing testing to their individual needs. This will increase the likelihood that individual will engage with the material to be learnt and therefore decrease the
possibility of gaps in knowledge of important regulatory material.
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