Lauren Thomas, program manager at Evans Incorporated, outlines various techniques teachers can use to nurture effective and meaningful learning.
The human brain is a learning machine, designed to extract meaning from new experiences and integrate new information with what is already known. Learning is about building connections between synapses in the brain. When we use or apply what we already know, we strengthen existing connections – which is why habits and routines can be hard to break. When we learn new material, we build new connections, and link them to the network of concepts, ideas and knowledge that we already have.
A good analogy is to think of learning as being like a tree, since our brain builds new “branches” as we process and learn new material. Good teaching capitalizes on the way the brain works, building stronger branches and making learning faster. Incorporating some of the following principles into your training programs will help you to provide learners with opportunities to build and strengthen their connections.
Actively involve your learners – the traditional view of teaching sees learners as “sponges,” passively soaking up information. Connections are formed more readily when a learner is actively working with materials, content and ideas. Build into your teaching activities where learners have to mentally use or apply, or discuss with others, the information you are giving them, and you will enhance their learning.
Manage the stress of learning – there is an optimal amount of stress for learning. Too much stress hinders learning, while a certain amount of stress is necessary to motivate learners, and can enhance the learning process. Stress is subjective – so different people have different perceived stress levels in the same situation. If it feels “too much” or “overwhelming” for your learner, then it probably is. Try breaking things down into smaller chunks, or allow learners more time before moving on.
Minimize multi-tasking – multi-tasking is really switching attention rapidly between two or more activities. It hinders learning, since it is not possible to pay attention to two things at the same time. Multi-tasking implies that trainees are continually giving the task only part of their attention. This weakens learning because it is a form of distraction. Try to engineer learning sessions to eliminate or reduce distractions, and focus on one concept at a time.
Take learner preferences into account – people have different preferences for learning and engaging with new material. While the research evidence to support the idea of learning styles is limited, using a wide variety of teaching methods is good practice. The more teaching methods you can use to teach the same material, the more likely you are to appeal to a wider range of learners. Plus, people learn more effectively when the same material is approached in different ways and from different perspectives, using different senses.
Repetition – repeating information strengthens neural connections and supports learning. Each time you revisit a topic or a concept with your learners, look at it in more depth or from a new perspective. You can increase complexity every time your learner encounters the material, starting simply and building mastery over time. Aim for mindful repetition, where knowledge is built or increased over time, rather than mindless regurgitation where a learner recites material without understanding.
Visualization – visualization is a mental strategy that supports learning by strengthening neural associations and pathways. Encourage your learners to visualize material by using spider diagrams and concept maps, drawing and representing what they know graphically. Artistic talent is not required – what is important is the process of creating a diagram that means something to learner. For example, allowing class-time for learners to draw a mind-map at the end of a session is a great opportunity to review what has been learned.
These training principles are well supported by neuropsychological research into how learning takes place. Good teachers probably recognize many of these techniques, although they may not realize that they are using them. If you manage to incorporate just one or two into learning events that you design, you greatly improve the chances that more of what you have taught will actually stick.