5 questions about powerful learning techniques

Interview with Anna Tebelius Bodin about powerful learning techniques.
In the digital era, our brains receive countless of impressions every day. How do you maximize learning in such environment?

Our brains are biologically programmed to deal with shortages. But our modern environment is characterized by surplus and information overload. We have unlimited access to everything from sugar and information to relationships and tasks. As a consequence, our 40.000 year-old brains need new strategies for creating long-term memories in a digital everyday life.

The fundamental principle is to create those limitations that the brain "expects'' to get. For example, dedicate some time for focussed work and do one task at a time. It is a common misconception that multitasking is efficient, when in reality it is very energy consuming for our brains (glucose and oxygen). The brain does a much better job focussing on one thing at a time, ideally during shorter sessions and without distractions. However, you may want to practice your ability to focus by exposing yourself to noisier, more challenging environments every now and again. Your focussing skills will improve significantly and become a valuable asset.

The younger generation has high expectations of learning and development opportunities in the workplace. What recommendations would you give to organizations based on that?

Learning new things triggers a dopamine rush, which is what we associate with motivation. Younger individuals are thought to be more spoiled with various kinds of stimulants of the "feel-good hormones" compared to previous generations. This is why they have higher expectations, even in the workplace.

To give a sense of learning and satisfaction, I would recommend concrete and hands-on training related to the job role. Course participants should be given the time, space, and authority to make practical use of their new skills early into the learning process. Theoretical knowledge can easily become overlooked or regarded as simply abstract theory unless turned into actions. This could involve time to reflect, getting senior mentorship, or new responsibilities. A sense of development occurs when efforts turn into new possibilities.

Are there any changes that you would like to see within learning and development?

Learning and development, both in schools and workplaces, would benefit from a change based on what we know about the brain today. Our digital world creates perfect conditions for efficiency and for getting lots of things done quickly. Meanwhile, the fast-paced workflow results in a lack of "pauses", which in turn makes systematic long-term memories (what we call learning) difficult. The L&D space would benefit from acknowledging that the brain needs more than simply receiving impressions.

How can we learn more efficiently?

We can only remember what we once thought. That is based on a quite ambitious definition of memory. Unfortunately, recollection is not enough. Instead, we need to retrieve memory when we need it and without a "trigger". In order to achieve that, we need to actively be mindful about the information as and when we read, hear or observe it. 30 seconds later, your working memory will no longer be able to process the information and it will be too late.

You recently took 100 days off work. Why is this important to you and what are your reflections from that time?

Being self-employed, I really value being in control of my own time. I also enjoy contrasts in life, which is why I work intensely with lectures, courses, and books for about half of the year. The remaining time I spend reflecting, outdoors, and together with family and friends. The human brain is built to endure periods of stress, but it also requires recovery. The time off gave me a more positive outlook on life, higher levels of "feel-good" hormones, and a significantly lower resting heart rate. I feel much better equipped to deal with stress going back to a high-paced workflow.

Do you work in learning and development? Here are the key take-aways:
  • Limit the amount of information and try to keep things simple. Large quantities of information will result in more questions (or a confused audience). The easier it is to comprehend, the more complex the processing of the information.
  • The brain can only pay attention to 50 out of the almost 11 million received impressions - each second. And out of these 50 impressions, you can only generate one thought chain. In other words, you can only focus on what you think of. Without active thinking you will not be able to create a long-term memory.
  • Try to encourage expressions among your audience. An expression must precede by a thought and therefore works as the only "learning guarantee". However, it requires active thinking by your audience.
  • Through generations we have been told repetition is the key to all knowledge. According to modern research, this is no longer true. Pointless repetition unfortunately remains pointless. Without active thinking your brain will not be able to create a long-term memory. Therefore, try to add an element to each repetition in order to create new perspectives and to keep it relevant to the brain.
  • "Retrieving" stored information is the best way to promote learning, which is something that happens when you or someone else asks you a question. This method is a lot more effective than merely repetition.

Anna Tebelius Bodin

Anna Tebelius Bodin (Harvard University) holds popular lectures for learning and development professionals across Sweden. Her theories combine science about the human brain with the digital era and focus on learning, motivation, and mental health.

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