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8 principles for learning that sticks, with award-winning examples

What makes learning stick?

Most of us can draw on personal experience to answer this. We can think of the lightbulb moments, or the times we tried something new and practised getting better.

Research in cognitive science, neurosciences and related disciplines provides evidence about why those experiences endure and help create lasting improvement. 

Here are 8 evidence-based principles for creating learning that lasts. They include examples from real programmes at some of the world’s leading organisations, many of them award-winning.  

What does the evidence say?

What this looks like in practice

Learning must be engaging. The brain is a serial processor, not a parallel processor. Divided attention leads to disengaged learning. There is also a neurologically proven 20 minute limit on attention span. Inspiring and motivating learning helps participants fully engage and focus.  

It can sometimes feel easier to deliver engaging learning face to face, but this award winning programme for brand stewards with Brown-Forman proves e-learning can be just as inspiring. Based around a virtual tour of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, it helped ignite passion for the brand. 94% of participants said it left them feeling “truly excited to be working on Jack Daniel’s”.

Learning must be relevant. Relevance starts with ensuring the right people are in the right training experience at the right time. It’s powerful to draw on real-world problems that matter to learners. This helps them integrate knowledge into their work and world. Relevant content that evokes emotion alerts the amygdala (the area of the brain with a key role in processing emotions). This helps people pay attention and store memory of new knowledge.

A forward thinking financial services firm knew that to achieve change among their thousands of marketers, their managers would be enormously relevant. They enhanced the relevance of their approach for managers with coaching. This encouraged managers to see what they could apply immediately to existing relationships with direct reports and teams. Participants scored a strong 4.3/5 for how inspired they were to start changing what they do in their day job as a result.

Provide the ‘big picture’ context. Context enables connection to prior knowledge and existing mental models.  It provides the ‘hooks’ by which new content makes sense to a learner. Practice activities link new learning to existing knowledge and mental models.

A large telecoms business whose marketers had become too focused on operations wanted them to reconnect with their customers. As part of a face to face learning event, they included a virtual reality experience to powerfully showcase the customer journey. It successfully brought the context of the client experience front and centre in the learning.

Effortful learning means learners actively engage in the learning process. Giving people a challenge builds the neuropathways that enable them to recall new learning. Failure can be a powerful learning tool – it evokes emotion and strengthens memory.

In an effort to accelerate digital transformation at Affinity Petcare, 100 cross functional leaders worked on a live business challenge that played to their company’s core purpose. At stake was the budget to implement the winning digital solution, so there was real challenge for the teams taking part in this award winning programme. The CEO called it “one of the most exciting journeys of a lifetime”.

Create generative learning opportunities. When participants put learning into their own words, they draw on their own understanding, make connections to existing knowledge and engage both their retrieval and storage memory.

Novartis step changed the way they prepared for competitor launches, in a programme that built behaviour change alongside technical capabilities. Participants worked collaboratively in cross functional teams to create new bold plans that put into practice what they learned. An evaluation in 3 countries showed an average 11% sales increase in the 3 months following the programme.

Build in social learning. Collaborative learning often involves discussion from different contexts or paradigms and is another way of engaging retrieval and storage memory. Engage groups of people in activities, discussions, debates, and dialogues. 

Johnson & Johnson wanted to build the know-how of senior leaders in analytics and digital. The programme they use to achieve this was innately social in design. Using reverse mentoring, senior leaders were paired with millennial mentors and they collaborated in an immersive learning experience to increase their personal confidence and competence. 88% of senior leaders found it a positive and unique experience.

Design effective practice opportunities. Practicing in multiple contexts creates a more complex (and memorable) mental model. Give learners the means to practice in different ways or contexts, for example using different media. 

Shell East Retail gave marketing teams the opportunity to practice their learning directly on live business challenges over the course of the programme. This led to powerful commercial aswell as learning outcomes, seeing profit grow by 30% and a significant increase in ROI.

Provide spaced learning, distributed over time, allowing learners time to reflect and forget. Mind wandering begins at about 6 minutes. Cramming does not work and at some point the ‘brain is full.’ The act of then retrieving that knowledge strengthens it.

Our forward thinking financial services client ran their programme over 3-4 months. Spacing the interventions over this time gave managers taking part the space they needed to absorb the content and plan to apply it on the job.

For support to create learning that sticks, and that changes people’s performance, get in touch with our team of learning experts.


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