How do you learn? When you want to acquire a new skill or apply some new knowledge, do you learn by passively sitting and listening to an expert lecture for 90 minutes without a break and 150 PPT slides? What do you actually retain? And, what do you actually apply? Or do you learn better when you get a chance to process the content every 15 minutes by thinking about it quietly or talking with a peer? Do you concentrate better when you move around versus sitting for too long?
I know for myself that I don’t learn, retain, or apply when content is endlessly shared – even from expert – without a break. If I can’t process what I hear by asking questions of the expert or checking in with another participate or sitting quietly and just thinking about what was shared, there is a point that I reach after about 15 minutes – it’s call “My Brain Is Full Up.” I wondered whether or not I was just weird, so I have been looking to some of the literature that looks at learning design from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience.
Now that could be hard reading, but Sharon Bowman’s “Using Brain Science To Make Science Stick” has been a terrific resource. If you are a trainer, you are working with the human brain every day and you need to know as much as possible about how humans learn and how to teach a topic well. Understanding what holds people’s attention or breaks it can make the difference between delivering a session that is valuable or a waste of time. The book offers several simple principles to incorporate:
- Movement is better than sitting
- Having participants talk is better than listening
- Images are better than words for instructional aids
- Writing is better than reading
- Shorter is better than longer
- Different delivery options are better than the same
The book goes into depth about each of these principles and how to incorporate into a training session. I’ve really taken to heart the movement principle. Despite what people may say in an evaluation, brain science suggests that the longer people sit the less they learn. The book offers some techniques to incorporate movement with the goal of improved retention and learning:
1. Body Breaks: The book suggests incorporating some sort of movement or body activity every ten minutes. One technique described that I use often is “share pairs,” it makes people get it up, take that body break, and check in with someone.
2. Walk and Talk: I do this a lot in half-day or full-day trainings. Participants might do an exercise, but the results are on the wall for a debrief. It is a more structured body break and incorporates more in-depth debrief on content.
3. Wall Writing: This an exercise where participants will write specific responses on labeled charts on the wall at designated times. It can be an answer to a question, a question learners still have, a summary statement, an opinion about the content, facts they want to remember, or how they plan to use the content.
What I’m struggling with how to incorporate body breaks with having participants being able to debrief in more depth, especially in the context of a 90 minute conference session. During a recent conference session where I used share pairs to keep people moving, one of the comments on the evaluation was, “The share pairs were too short/frequent to get deep enough.” Now that’s a design challenge – how to deliver an interactive session that can go in-depth with 80-100 participants in 90 minutes!
Talking VS Listening
The brain science literature suggests that learners understand and remember more when they talk about what they are learning. However, there are some people who attend conference sessions or training to have information wash over them and are uncomfortable with talking or moving. One comment in the evaluation from a recent NTC session, while in the minority, said it this way: “While the presenters were engaging and had good information, there was too much time having attendees talk to one-on-one about their own experiences and situations. I want to learn from the experts and the time I spent talking to peers did not give me any meat and minimized the time that the experts talked.”
The book offers some great reminders about how to make your presentations more interactive. The best one, “Stop Talking: The longer you talk, the less they learn.” Even if you are just pausing for 60 seconds to give people a chance to summarize what they learned. If you are going to incorporate group discussion, it is important to remember that there is low-risk and high-risk. Low risk allows participants to collaborate on an answer to question and high risk asks one person to respond. It is good to begin with low-risk. The same goes for small group and large group discussions. Give participants an opportunity to answer the questions as well as ask open-ended questions. All these techniques incorporate interaction and better processing of your content.
In some instances, you might have extreme introverts – those who are highly uncomfortable interacting with other people to learn. According to research, they represent 2-12% of the population in the US. This was true for the NTC session, one person commented, “I’m an introvert, so partnering up with another person didn’t work for me.” Another principle will work for them – “Writing vs Reading.” You get people to quietly debrief in writing what they learned. I like to use as a closer, but perhaps it could be offered as an alternative for the introverted in the room.
How do you learn best at conferences or workshops? Do you want endless content or do you need some ways to process what you have learned? As a presenter or trainer, do you allow the audience to process your content? How?