How to Make Virtual Learning Better, Not Worse, Than In-Person


When governments issued lockdown orders earlier this year, organizations everywhere scrambled to move their learning programs online. Since then, a team at the NeuroLeadership Institute has conducted over 20 learning audits to assess how larger companies handled the transition. Unfortunately, our conversations revealed that most organizations took in-person learning programs, already poor at driving behavior change, and made them worse, not better.

We believe this is a terrible lost opportunity. Our research shows that virtual learning, when done right, can be dramatically more effective than in person workshops. In fact, an analysis of the likelihood of people taking action on a learning program, showed that a smart virtual learning program was around six times more likely to get people to take actions than the usual way learning is delivered in person. Not 6% better, or 60% better, but 600% better.

With everything in flux and employees working from home for a considerable amount of time, now could be the time to leverage the moment and make the change to effective virtual learning, not just cutting and pasting what we did in person into long zoom meetings. Here’s why and how.

The science of learning

To understand why virtual learning programs fail and how to make them better, let’s define the purpose of learning in the first place.

In the organizational context, the purpose of learning is to change behavior. For change to occur, new learning must be remembered. Now, much of the learning that organizations invest in involves human skills. Things like how to run meetings well, how to give feedback, how to deal with difficult conversations.

In these situations, people are under pressure, and if they are going to follow something other than their automatic way of interacting, they will need to recall what they learned very quickly and easily—literally, in an instant, and likely while feeling anxious.

Let’s say you teach a manager how to run meetings more inclusively. If that manager is then able to remember what they learned only if they pause to think deeply and consult their notes from class, the program has failed. For learning to be effective, the learner must be able to easily recall it even when they’re tired, behind on a deadline, or anxious about getting things wrong and looking foolish in front of their team.

Our research over many years, initially published in 2010 and updated many times since, shows that easy recall under pressure is possible only when four conditions are met during an encoding task: Attention, Generation, Emotion, and Spacing—a framework defined in the NeuroLeadership Institute’s AGES Model.

Research has found that the key to effective learning is activating the hippocampus, a brain region that helps consolidate new information into memory. For ideal hippocampal activation to occur, all four AGES components must be optimized, and not just at low to moderate levels, but at very high levels. If any of these conditions are not high during an encoding task, then the likelihood of easy recall under pressure drops significantly.

Attention: For learning to occur, participants must pay close attention to what they’re learning. High attention means focusing very closely on one thing, with no other distractions.

Generation: Since we form memories by making associations, learning works best when participants generate their own connections to the material, linking new ideas to their own existing knowledge.

Emotion: For memories to stick well, there needs to be strong emotions during encoding, which activates the hippocampus.

Spacing: Learning is most effective when learning sessions are spaced out over time, especially when the gap between sessions includes one or more nights of sleep.

When deployed correctly, virtual learning is capable of activating high levels of attention, generation, emotion, and spacing. Even higher levels than you can in a single half day or day long workshop.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re seeing in organizations. Instead, many organizations have taken flawed practices from in-person programs and simply migrated them online, making them even worse in terms of attention, generation and emotion—often at great cost.

Here are the most common mistakes and what to do instead:

Mistake #1: Running online learning sessions of 2 to 4 hours in length. Anyone who’s ever had to sit through a long university lecture knows that the brain loses focus quickly. When learning sessions are long, learning is low, since participants are unable to pay attention for hours on end at the level needed for strong memory encoding to occur.

The solution: For virtual learning to be effective, sessions should be 50 or 55 minutes long. But that doesn’t mean the learning itself is shallow. When learning is designed well, learners can achieve intense insights in short periods of time.

Mistake #2: Cramming learning into a single session or week. Most learning programs attempt to cram as much learning as possible into a short period. Back when most learning occurred in person, that approach made more sense, given the costs of reserving physical space and the time required for facilitators and participants to commute to the location. But virtual learning makes it easy to space sessions out over time without incurring extra costs. Since no commuting is required, it’s easy to break learning up over multiple sessions on different days.

The solution: Organizations should make virtual learning sessions shorter and allow more time in between, stretching learning out over three weeks or more. The result is powerful learning that’s far more effective than a single session could ever be, because of the spacing effect. It also allows you to make learning more social, a critical factor for success, as we go into next.

Mistake #3: Failing to make learning social. Most learning programs are content to let participants walk out the door and not give material another thought until they return for the next session, if there even is a next session. This is a squandered opportunity to leverage the power of social learning.

The solution: To maximize recall, learning programs should engage participants’ social networks every week, encouraging them to share what they’ve learned with teammates, friends, and family. By connecting learning material to social interactions, participants link new ideas to the brain’s social memory network, resulting in better recall later on.

And, the effect of thinking other people might be watching you creates positive social pressure. When learning is social, learners encode more richly, recall more easily, and act more often.

Mistake #4: Designing for Net Promoter Score instead of behavior change. Most learning programs are designed to be fun and popular. But since effective learning is effortful, such programs are often ineffective. In fact, learning that really sticks tends to involve making people feel mildly uncomfortable, given this means participants likely experienced strong emotions.

The solution: Rather than trying to create content people will like, focus instead on activating habits. That means not just teaching skills, but also gauging a program’s effectiveness by measuring change—as NLI does with the Behavior Change Percentage metric.

Leverage the moment

This is a unique moment. Even as the coronavirus pandemic inflicts tremendous pain and hardship in our society, it’s also unleashing newfound energy and motivation in organizations. With so many processes in flux, employees are more willing than ever to do things differently.

But the momentum of this crisis won’t last forever. Leaders should seize the opportunity to redefine their approach to virtual learning before the energy dissipates. How should we rethink learning and build a better normal? Like many things today, it can pay to follow the science.

Authors: Jay Dixit , Dr. David Rock

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