How Understanding the Science of Learning Can Help L&D

by | Jun 2, 2016 | 0 comments

We caught up with Occupational Psychologist Gary Luffman of Think.Change! at the CIPD Conference to find out more about how applying the fundamentals of learning science could impact learner behaviour.

Change. It’s a word so commonly used in the context of learning and development, yet our understanding of the brain’s key processes in relation to change is one rarely discussed by L&D professionals. Why do we find it difficult to effect real change within our organisations? Externally driven change activates an emotional response in our brains that is biological. Put simply, L&D delivering new training or ways of working can easily be assumed to be a threat. “Everyone likes to think their organisation is different, but we are all the same in terms of people!” says Gary. When planning our learning solutions, it’s helpful to consider some of the challenges or obstacles we may face in terms of learner engagement and ‘stick-a-bility’.

Our learners are becoming increasingly more self-directed and sure of what they want and need. In order to best facilitate social and experiential learning, we need to be actively seeking to understand our learners and the learning process. Understanding this has a direct impact on success. Our 2016 In-Focus report, Preparing for the Future of Learning in conjunction with the CIPD, takes a closer look at how L&D are seeking to understand their ‘internal customers’.

The research shows that only:

  • 28% of L&D professionals agree that staff are keeping up-to-date with the latest research into learning theory (e.g. neuroscience and cognitive science)
  • 30% are proactive in understanding how learners currently learn what they need to do their job.
  • 35% sayi they are actively involving users in the design of the most appropriate learning approach

If this is the case, how do we really know as L&D professionals that we are delivering both what our learners need, and what actually works?


“Limitations lead to habits – the prefrontal cortex is associated with the kind of things that work requires us to do” explains Gary. As well as understanding how the science of learning can impact learner behaviour, we should also consider its effect on our design in L&D. If up to 80% of what we do throughout the day is habituated, then we really need to ask ourselves the question: when designing learning experiences, are we doing similar things because it’s what we’ve always done? Is there a way in which we can transfer our learning design so that we still retain the highlights of what we know works, but cut out the things that don’t?

“Do less, well!” says Gary. By concentrating on key concepts, it’s not only our learners who will benefit from this – L&D will be better equipped to implement change and development.

Examples of  key conceps include the Reticular Activating System (RAD) which acts as the attention span of the brain. Effectively, it’s the on-off switch and the ‘gatekeeper’ in terms of what gets filtered through your brain, what we pay attention to and what we don’t. The amygdala is associated with the fear/pleasure part of your brain, and dopamine supports the brains function in relation to reward and motivation. The RAD and research behind the science of learning are of particular interest to us in L&D as they help us to scaffold the structure of our learning solutions:

Engaging your learners: Reaching with the Reticular Activating System by asking yourself these questions about learning:

  • What is your learner’s personal connection to the learning?
  • Is it important to them?
  • Is it interesting?
  • Is it challenging enough?
  • Is there enough variety?

The emotional importance: Getting the right attitude with the Amygdala

  • Banish learner limitations by incorporating pre-reading, videos, and resources: This is the vital time where the learning journey begins – enable people to get prepared and engaged in learning before they’ve entered the room or logged in.
  • Reduce anxiety, negative emotions and resistance to change: We love getting people out of their comfort zones, but don’t do it to the degree that you create disengagement before you’ve even begun.
  • Mood. It has an impact on creativity, innovation, focus and attention: As well as ensuring the mood is right for your learners, it really starts with you! When sketching out the architecture of a learning experience, what mood are you in?

The ‘save’ button: Dopamine and success

  • Make sure feedback plays an important role in learning: if people know they are getting better at something then they feel encouraged and inspired to carry on.
  • Change the delivery of your learning: Facilitate an environment whereby discussion supports learners to make lasting connections to their learning. “It’s about construction, not just consumption of knowledge” says Gary.
  • Design your session with your learners in mind: Some of our best resources and solutions can be crowdsourced from learners! Are you planning enough time for your learners to generate content and ideas?

When planning any learning experience, always consider the culture of the organisation. Identifying potential barriers to learner engagement and asking key questions about how people might respond to the learning at this particular point in time and how relevant it is to their needs can help you effect real and positive change within your organisation.

Discoveries on the science behind learning have shed new light on our understanding of how we learn – there is plenty of opportunity for L&D professionals to build on our skills in this area. Still, 3 in 5 L&D leaders say they are failing to achieve their aspirations due to a lack of skills in their L&D team. In order to embrace change, we need to equip ourselves with the necessary skills to help us achieve our objectives.

Further reading:

How well do you understand your learners?

The 2016 Towards Maturity Benchmark allows L&D to effectively audit their skills and identify key objectives, including a focus on the science behind learning and the L&D team’s skills in this area. Download our latest report on Preparing for the Future of Learning here and find out more about what we as L&D can do to get prepared for the changing landscape of L&D.

Benchmark Your L&D Strategy

At Towards Maturity, we have identified six workstreams that characterise successful, high performing organisations. From these workstreams, we have developed a common framework of effective practice.

Benchmarking against that framework helps L&D pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of their own organisation, work out what needs to change and map out actions. In short, the Towards Maturity Benchmark is a structured framework that helps learning leaders under pressure identify the actions that will bring tangible results in the workplace. It helps you to work out how to get from A to B!

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