The What, How and Feel- How the Brain’s Learning Systems Influence L&D

The What, How, and Feel: How the Brain’s Learning Systems Influence L&D

The pace of change in the workplace has never been greater. Every corporate sector is rapidly evolving, whether it’s life sciences, healthcare, sales, financial services, operations, or education. This places a premium on learning and development at all levels, from front-line employees to the C-suite, so new skills can be learned and old ones updated. As a result, continuous learning and constant upskilling and reskilling are helping companies adapt and keep pace.

A growing trend being used by forward-thinking L&D teams is applying modern learning neuroscience to more effectively train and improve employee proficiency. According to Learning Scientist/Research Fellow Todd Maddox Ph.D. of Amalgam Insights, the functions needed to master hard, soft, and situational awareness skills are each housed in a different part of the brain within different learning systems. So understanding the processing characteristics of each area — cognitive, behavioral, and emotional — and how they work is key to creating a comprehensive training program that generates meaningful behavior change that impacts employee performance.

Maddox has extensively studied three different distinct learning systems of the human brain: The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), Amygdala, and Basal Ganglia, all of which perform in incredibly different ways and affect the way in which we learn certain sets of skills. He counsels L&D teams to think deeply about the learning science behind teaching hard skills, soft skills, and situational awareness when shaping their L&D programs and strategies.

Leveraging Learning Science - How Qstream’s Mobile Microlearning Solution Changes Behavior

Hard Skills
Maddox points out that hard-skill learning is mediated by the cognitive learning system, which is housed in the prefrontal cortex. This system — the “what” system, according to Maddox — obtains the knowledge and facts you need to know to apply in a specific situation. It relies heavily on working memory and attention and, because cognitive skills are susceptible to the forgetting curve, it’s necessary to involve mental repetition and rehearsal in order to transfer information from short-term memory (PFC) into long-term memory (hippocampus). Without repetition, the brain naturally forgets hard skills within as little as four days.

Introducing continuous testing and training — the foundation of Qstream’s proprietary spaced education algorithm — significantly speeds learning, slows forgetting, and helps consolidate information. Qstream Co-Founder and Spaced Education Pioneer Dr. B. Price Kerfoot has performed over 22 clinical studies that have shown how interval reinforcement training leads to strong initial learning and long-term retention (e.g., Kerfoot et al, 2006, 2010; Kerfoot & Brotschi, 2009), proving that implementing this strategy as a part of hard-skill learning quickly boosts performance.

Soft Skills
Soft skills, or people skills, rely on the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. This system focuses on the “how” because it takes what we know and figures out how to apply it to varying situations. In his studies, Maddox states that behavioral skill learning is mediated by the basal ganglia and does not rely on working memory and attention. Processing in this system is optimized when behavior is interactive and followed by real-time corrective feedback where behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to occur in the future, whereas punished behaviors are less likely to occur. Maddox believes the best way to maximize this benefit is to incorporate physical repetition and gradual incremental changes in behavior to encourage the development of “muscle memory.”

While difficult to train, people skills are ever so important to be effective in the workplace. Nurturing and developing these skills can help prep your employees for all possible scenarios. Qstream takes a multi-pronged approach to people-skills training and development by combining scenario-based storytelling with spaced training. This trains hard skills and situational awareness, but also primes the learner for behavior change. In a study by Dr. B. Price Kerfoot, et al with 111 clinicians and more than 14,000 patients, the prostate cancer screening process was improved by teaching through changing behavior. The results showed that “spaced education durably improves the prostate cancer screening behaviors of clinicians and represents a promising new methodology to improve patient care across healthcare systems” (e.g., Kerfoot et al, 2010). This reinforcement technique using scenario-based challenges and testing can be applied to any workplace scenarios to sharpen response to the unpredictable.

Webcast Replay: Leveraging Psychology and Brain Science to Optimize Retention and Behavior Change

Situational Awareness
Possessing the ability to read a situation and having strong situational awareness relies on emotional learning, according to Maddox. This learning system facilitates the development of nuanced understanding of situations and people, allowing one to extract the appropriate information and engage with the proper behavior for each distinct and quickly changing situation. He refers to this as the “feel” system because, quite literally, it’s about feeling out the situation. In his research, Maddox states that this type of learning is mediated in the amygdala and is much less understood than the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems, but we do know that emotional learning is at the heart of situational awareness. Mastering situational fluency equips an individual with the ability to accurately read any situation, adapt quickly, know what to do, and engage with the appropriate set of behaviors to achieve the best outcome, usually all in split seconds.

Developing situational awareness and fluency is at the heart of Qstream’s mobile microlearning solution. Best practice, and therefore maximum-learning effectiveness, is to shape learning content into real-life scenarios and simulations that are context rich and involve storytelling, ranging from routine to non-routine contexts featuring high-pressure situations that push employees to enhance both hard- and soft-skills learning. Such cognitively challenging scenarios engage many areas of the brain and prepare employee to have the optimal behavior in any situation.

Qstream: Improving Hard Skills, People Skills, and Situational Awareness
No matter the type of skill being taught, Qstream’s mobile microlearning platform can greatly improve employee performance by coaching employees — and their brains’ learning systems — to proficiency in any given workplace scenario. The application of spaced learning creates adaptable employees who become valuable assets to any company willing to invest in them. To learn more about how focusing on the functionalities of each learning system can give your employees an edge, download this analyst insights whitepaper, authored by Maddox: “Leveraging Learning Science - How Qstream’s Mobile Microlearning Solution Changes Behavior.”

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