How Lockdown Unexpectedly Made Learning Better


Anyone who’s tried to quiet a screaming toddler during a zoom call, or worn a mask for an eight-hour shift knows that we don’t work the same way anymore. Our new normal means employees need new skills and different habits to work effectively.

But the way we teach those skills has had to change as much as our day-to-day has. Research from Gartner shows that 84% of organizations have moved learning to virtual platforms. These shifts in the learning landscape have exposed gaps in organizations’ pre-COVID learning strategies. Now, with our opportunities for face-to-face interaction virtually nil, organizations have to rethink the how of learning.

Fortunately, despite all the changes life’s thrown at us, the science of learning persists. And our research shows that virtual learning, when done right, can be dramatically more effective than in-person workshops. Here’s how.

The simple, but onerous, goal of learning

We invest in learning to equip people to do something differently. Whether the training is to use a new software suite effectively, or to or have more productive feedback conversations with direct reports, the goal of training is to instill new, better behaviors. And the best way to instill new behaviors is to build new habits.

Habits are automated behaviors, and the brain likes them because they save time and energy. We can think of a habit as an over-practiced behavior that lets us run on auto-pilot.

That’s why it’s easy, for example, while driving to a familiar destination to completely focus on something else. Your physical actions are habitual, allowing you to devote your attention to other things, like the song on the radio, or a conversation with a passenger.

That’s the ultimate goal of any learning program—to make the new behavior so natural that it requires no conscious effort or thought. In other words, make it a habit.

The simple power of habits

We’ve studied the science of habit formation for more than a decade, and have found that building new habits comes with fairly simple rules, but isn’t always easy to achieve. Fortunately, science can show us how to build habits effectively and efficiently at any scale.

Research reveals that there are three key ingredients crucial for lasting learning and behavior change: designing for insight, making learning social, and building one habit at a time, over time. Organizations that use these elements to scale learning best help themselves to leave the greatest impact.

Generate insight: Insights can most easily be understood as those lightbulb moments when we say “Aha! I get it!” Research suggests insights are essential for creating the kind of intrinsic motivation that helps people build new habits.

NLI’s AGES model allows us to create the ideal conditions for insight. The AGES model describes a style of learning where people can focus on and engage with the content, experience positive emotions around it, and take breaks between lessons.

Make it social: Social learning matters for a couple big reasons. First, social situations can create positive pressure that nudges people to perform and engage with material and follow through on calls to action. In essence, we’re deeply motivated by what we think others are doing. Take for example a study that showed that when hotel guests are told that the majority of their fellow guests had reused their towels, they were 26% more likely to reuse theirs.

Second, social learning is often accompanied by positive emotion, which we know from the AGES Model helps people retain information.

The challenge we often see is that as learning becomes more scalable it often becomes less social. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Virtual learning cohorts provide fertile ground for social interaction, and thrives on social accountability.

Embed one habit at a time, over time: Our brains can only handle so much at once. At first, creating a new habit will require effort and practice. But over time, they’ll become second nature. The key is to take it slow. It’s like building a muscle; you’re likely to see more results—and stick with it longer—if you do a 10 minute workout everyday instead of a strenuous 1 hour workout once a week.

The more consistently we exercise our new habits, the more the learning is reinforced. Virtual learning programs enable us to space learning out in smaller chunks over longer periods of time to build strong and sustainable habits, one at a time.

Using habits to drive change across organizations

Building strong habits will make practicing the desired behavior easy to do in the normal flow of work, but also under pressure—like when facing a pressing deadline, or after a setback. Once habits have been embedded, they can drive immense change in seemingly small ways.

For example, imagine the impact of 78% of managers using strategies for mitigating bias at least once a week, like at a healthcare company that worked with NLI to lift their DE&I efforts, or 86% of employees asking for feedback at least once a week, like at a hotel group NLI helped revamp their performance management system.

Imagine the habits your organization needs, then put them to work.


Authors: Katherine Milan , Cliff David


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