The 4 Active Ingredients for Long-Term Learning


As students, many of us came to view learning as a brute-force activity. An instructor gave us some information, and the responsibility fell on us to cram it into our long-term memories. If we didn’t hit the books hard enough, well, that was our problem.

But what if that whole approach to learning is flawed?

Over the past decade, a great deal of research has identified several key ingredients of successful learning, and the NeuroLeadership Institute has taken notice. Not only do we want to offer brain-friendly solutions to clients, but we want to deliver those solutions in such a way that it creates lasting impact.

What we came up with is a cohesive structure for learning, which we call the AGES Model. It stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion, and Spacing. Together, the AGES Model enables people to learn quickly, and retain that information for the long haul.

Here’s what it’s all about.


Learning takes place when we activate a brain region known as the hippocampus. This occurs when we focus on one topic, without distractions. When we multi-task or let our minds wander, we’re likely to deactivate the hippocampus and reduce how much learning takes place.

In short, attention matters because it’s how our brain knows what we’re trying to learn in the first place.


The second component involves how we engage with the material. Research shows we can’t just absorb information passively; we must take an active, creative role.

This stems from how the brain stores memory, as the hippocampus acts more like a web than a hard drive. The thicker and denser the web of memories, the stronger each individual memory becomes.

As learners, we help strengthen that web when we actively create — or generate — those connections. One way to do that is by relating the new material to our existing web of knowledge.


Emotions play a dual role in learning. First, they’ve been found to increase our attention to a given topic, which helps us focus. And second, emotions activate a brain region called the amygdala, which seems to alert the hippocampus that the material is important and worth encoding as memory.

In addition, when learning gets us feeling positive emotions, such as joy and excitement, it can create a sense of anticipation that research has found to have a positive impact on learning.


Finally, learning takes time. Instead of cramming information into our heads, only to forget it soon after, neuroscientists have long found that the brain really creates long-term memories through a spacing approach. That is, introduce concepts at a steady rate and wait some time before retrieving that information.

Spacing is challenging because people do forget some things, which makes retrieval harder. The good news is, the harder it is to retrieve a memory, the more learning that’s taking place.

Of course, researchers can’t say whether we should space lessons by an hour or a week, but they do agree that some spacing is always better than no spacing. How often you space may be more of a practical matter within your organization.

Ultimately, the AGES Model describes a style of learning that helps people focus on the content, engage directly with it, experience positive emotions around it, and take breaks between lessons. When organizations take such an approach, research suggests they’ll maximize their teams’ learning and accelerate breakthroughs like never before.

Author: Chris Weller

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