How we learn 1. Using learning science to improve learning programmes

Using learning science to improve learning programmes

Learning science has provided many insights into how people build and retain new knowledge. Understanding these theories can make a significant difference to the way we design our organisational learning.

Strangely, some of our best held beliefs concerning learning are in fact counter to what the experts have found. For example, we might encourage someone to remove interruptions and focus their concentration when learning but evidence shows we remember more if we are distracted during the learning cycle.

If we are serious about changing people for good then we need to think about how learning science can shape our learning interventions whether it’s e-learning, face to face, social learning or a blend of all possible interventions.

“More than 99 % of experience is fleeting, here and gone. The brain holds on to only what’s relevant, useful, or interesting – or maybe so in the future”.

Benedict Carey


In this blog post we will take a closer look at three common learning theories and how they relate to the development of a blended learning programme.

1.Forgetting to learn!

The brain is an incredible device. It has powers beyond anything that has been created by mankind. Consider for a moment how it has catalogued your life so far. Think of any early memory such as the garden or back yard that you played in as a child. Focus on some detail of that environment. What do you remember? You’ve just retrieved a piece of information that may have been dormant for decades!

Ebbinghaus came up with the theory of disuse way back in 1885. However, his forgetting curve has become the old theory of disuse being replaced with the Bjorks new theory, Forget to learn! The Bjorks argue that forgetting is the best friend of learning. It is the tool that helps us filter the important from the mundane. It allows us to build longer more significant memories. They cleverly point out that without a little forgetting you would get no benefits from further study. They suggest that the harder we have to work to retrieve memory the greater the strength of learning.

Forgetting deepens learning, by filtering out distracting information and by allowing some breakdown that after reuse drives retrieval and storage strength higher than they were originally.

2. Incubation

Ever been stuck, moved away for a time and then come back a while later and been able to immediately solve it? It’s a scientifically proven aspect of learning!

Two learning scientists, Sio and Ormerod divided these ‘incubation’ breaks into three; relaxing, mildly active and highly engaging. Remarkably their results indicated that it didn’t matter at all what type of break people had, the thing that mattered was simply that they had been taken from the project. On average participants remembered 90% more of the interrupted and unfinished projects than the ones they completed!

Zeigarnik’s research into this same area discovered that people actually got the best from incubation if they were interrupted from their study at the point they were most involved.

In fact a 5 to 20 minute distraction (like checking your emails) is the most effective way scientists have discovered in helping people solve problems.

3. Pre-testing

Another fascinating insight comes from two learning science academics Wozniak and Spitzer. Building on earlier studies they have discovered that pre-testing a subject prior to being taught has a massive increase in the way subsequent information is remembered.

Providing prompt feedback is given to the learner, answering a pre-test with no prior understanding of the topic can enhance subsequent retention of the corrected answer by up to 30%.

Understanding these and other insights from learning science enables us to build blended learning solutions that not only engage but actually change people for good.

Contact us today to find out how we could bring blended learning to your organisation.