To improve recall, use social learning

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


To improve recall, use social learning

What’s been the biggest value of the pilot brain-based facilitation skills program I’m now completing with the NeuroLeadership Institute?

Experiencing the AGES model as a student and grasping its power to make learning fun, sticky and invigorating.

AGES stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing.  All four need to be present for optimal learning, according to the neuroscientists who are studying and rethinking adult learning. (Keep in mind the point of adult learning is to improve individuals’ skills, especially those they can continue to apply to their job, not help them ace a test at the end of training.)

When facilitators─or any instructors or teachers for that matter─ create a learning experience that weaves all four AGES components together, the participants are better able to remember a significant amount of the material.

As a result, once participants go back to work, it’s easier to apply what they learned and make it a habit.

In many respects, brain-based facilitation is basically a form of brain-based coaching for groups, rather than individuals.

Facilitators who use AGES and understand how the brain works function very differently from traditional workshop leaders.

Brain-based facilitators focus less on cramming content into students’ heads and more on providing space, support and activities to help participants come up with their own aha’s—which is similar to what coaches do.

Self-generated aha’s help make learning stick. From a neuroscience perspective, when people experience an “aha” or an epiphany on their own, they systematically make new connections in their brain. These connections change the brain immediately and in the future, including embedding learnings in long-term memory.

What do we brain-based facilitators do differently? In other words, from a practical point of view, what do the space, support and activities look like?

These three techniques are incredibly effective:

1. Mix things up at least every 20 minutes. Introduce a discussion question, give people time to reflect or draw, stand up, tell a story, show a video, or whatever. The point is to regain people’s attention because our consciousness is an extremely limited and fragile resource. According to the research, it’s impossible for adults to pay close attention to a single topic for more than 20 minutes at a time.

2. Make the learning social. When individuals interact with their peers, especially when they work together to discuss issues or solve a problem, they make stronger emotional connections to each other and to the material. Because we humans crave social contact, even when we think we don’t, this makes the learning more pleasurable and memorable.

3. Give people time to digest the information, especially by sleeping on it. Brain-based facilitators “inquire and retire” rather than “tell and sell.” They give participants time in a comfortable setting to think and work on their own and with others. (For more about this check out Why an aha! helps behavior change.) Brain-based facilitators also try to avoid one day training sessions and instead do two half-day sessions or more so people can literally “sleep on what they’re learning.”

During sleep, the brain (among other activities) sifts through the learnings and moves important content from working memory in the prefrontal cortex to the hippocampus, which stores long-term memories. Another technique is to chunk the content over a series of classroom sessions or webinars every few weeks or so, which also helps with spacing the learning and retaining the information.

The 10 of my fellow pilot members who took part in the day-and-a-half “teach back” sessions in New York City earlier this month practiced these techniques with each other. By doing so, we experienced the value of AGES first hand both as facilitators and as participants.

The learning experience was extremely enjoyable and memorable in the moment and should last for the ages (yes, pun intended).

By the way, if you’re interested in reading the research about the AGES model for yourself, the first NeuroLeadership Journal article is Learning that Lasts through AGES from 2010. Then in 2014, the Journal featured new findings in The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model.

Ever since I became involved with the NeuroLeadership Institute almost five years ago, I’ve worked to honor the brain with the way I design and facilitate workshops. The results have been gratifying.

Now with the experience of this pilot NeuroLeadership Institute program, I’m already being more mindful, intentional and diligent as a facilitator. It’s exciting to put these new learnings into motion.

Life is too short to suffer through training that makes your head hurt. What do you think?