Microlearning

Moving from Information to Knowledge

Our brains filter out what it considers noise and focuses on information it considers important.

I once watched a documentary about non-hearing people who received a cochlear implant and could hear for the first time in their lives. The implant failed in some that received it, not because it did not work, but because their brains did not develop the ability to filter out noise.

Imagine how overwhelming it would be to walk into a grocery store and hear every noise with the same amount of attention, from the person sneezing next to you, to the background music and of course the cash registers. For another example, consider the last time you walked into a place and were greeted by a funky smell, perhaps a veterinary office, or a hospital… thankfully after a few minutes, if the smell is not bad enough, we tend not to notice it anymore.

Our brains are on an energy budget. Roughly 20 percent of the calories we consume are used to keep our brains running, so it spends its precious reserves remembering and learning things it evolved to recognize as important.

As learning professionals, how do we break through the noise, and nudge the brain to recognize information as worth remembering and learning?

Whether and how information moves into long-term memory depends on:

  • Feelings – What we feel about the information.
  • Repetition – How often we are exposed to the information.
  • Complexity – How complicated or complex is the information.
  • Connections – The association and connections we make between the information and our existing knowledge.

Feelings, repetition, complexity, and connections – these factors determine whether and how information moves to long-term memory, and then hopefully becomes learning and knowledge.

The process of moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory is called consolidation. Consolidation is a complex process involving biological and psychological processes. For our purpose, we will explore how we can use these four factors as learning drivers.

Feelings

How we feel about the information affects how the information is processed. Strong emotions, such as fear or anger, skip the line to long-term memory and involve parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, that control our fight or flight responses. This is not an ideal outcome for corporate learning for lots of reasons…even beyond the obvious ones. There’s a term, Amygdala hijack, first coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book titled Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Amygdala hijack describes a state in which your higher cognitive functions that govern logic and factual recall (called semantic memories) shut down, and what takes over is orientated at action, movement, and strong emotions (implicit memory).

The type of memory recall we mostly want to foster in corporate training is called declarative (also explicit) memory. These are facts or concepts that can be consciously recalled and for this type of memory retention, our learners need their higher cognitive functions (logic and reason) fully functional.

As learning professionals, we need to create a safe environment that takes the high road (albeit longer) to learning. As such we must remove stressors that are in our control, which even in small doses, can hamper learning. Things in our control that can affect the mental state of the learner can include:

  • The tone of the material
  • The aesthetics of the visuals
  • The temperature of the room
  • Technical issues

Learning driver: Create a safe environment for learning.

Repetition

Repetition is a tried-and-true path to learning. It’s how we learn lifelong skills, such as riding a bike; and factual recall, such as the times table. But there are some caveats here. As a teenager, I remember my mother made a list of chores posted on the kitchen wall, after passing by that list for a week I became blind to it. From my perspective, it became part of the wallpaper. So just repeating information is not enough. The information must be repeated in meaningful ways, such as in different contexts, using different media, or received through different senses. For example, the concepts in this article, are also echoed in MaxLearn’s videos and reinforced through quizzes and examples. 

The information should be repeated in spaced intervals, again so it does not fade into the noise (wallpaper), and to reinforce the memory retrieval process. 

Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, famously said you cannot step into the same river twice. You also cannot have the same memory twice. Each time a memory is recalled it is both altered and reinforced. Using the river as an analogy again, the act of recalling a memory acts like rain, it both deepens the memory, and alters it slightly, bringing in new information you may have gathered since the memory’s last active recall.  

Learning driver: Spaced repetition grows and strengthens your brain’s neural network.

Complexity

The more complex the information is, the harder it is to remember. In other articles, I discuss how to break complex information into smaller chunks, so I won’t go into that much depth on the topic here, except to say, “There are no three easy steps to playing guitar as well as Jimi Hendrix or painting with the luminosity of Rembrandt.” As instructional designers, we must start with notes, build to cords, and through time, practice, and repetition, we can create symphonies.   

Learning driver Chunk information into smaller, easy-to-remember learning bites.

Connecting

We learn by making connections between new information and our existing experiences and knowledge. The more connections we make, and the more we retrieve these connections the deeper and more long-lasting our understanding becomes. 

If you meet a group of people, and one of them has the same birthday as you, that connection will make it more likely you will remember that individual. That’s a connection of coincidence, and because we have evolved to recognize patterns, our brains seek them out.

If, like the example given previously you want to play guitar like Jimi, the connections and associations you need to make would revolve around prior musical experience or even the process you went through to learn another fine motor skill, even something like knitting.

Connections, even if they don’t have a direct correlation to the information (like knitting to guitar play or a shared birthday) give the information meaning and relevance. If it is information related to a skill, it brings that skill into the “realm of the possible,” something the learner feels that they can achieve.

Learning driver: Demonstrate the information’s usefulness and relevance to existing tasks and duties.

Learning Drivers

We’ve categorized the factors that move information to learning into:

  • Feelings – What we feel about the information.
  • Repetition – How often we are exposed to the information.
  • Complexity – How complicated or complex is the information. 
  • Connections – The association and connections we make between the information and our existing knowledge. 

Each of these factors can either drive or inhibit learning.

Learning is inhibited if:

  • The learner is frustrated, stressed, or bored. 
  • The learning is not reinforced after the event. 
  • The information is complex, and not properly chunked and presented in a logical order or grouping. 
  • The learner does not see the relevance of the information and therefore does not make connections and associations.  

We can drive learning by:

  • Creating a safe environment for learning.
  • Reinforcing the information through space-repetition.
  • Chunking the information into smaller, easy-to-remember learning bites.
  • Helping the learner make connections to existing knowledge, issues, or challenges they face. For corporate learning, we must make it relevant to their job, and answer the question “Why should I learn this?”

Putting it into Practice

Here are a few examples of how we can leverage factors for learning.

information to knowledge

 

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