The Essential Ingredient for a Powerful Learning Experience

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photoTake a few seconds to recall a powerful learning experience. What made it powerful for you? I bet it’s an experience you associate with strong emotions. Maybe you felt challenged, joyful, inspired, or even ashamed. Emotions are synonymous with the experience because they’re part of how you make sense of it. But it’s likely they were never a deliberate part of its design.

That’s too bad because research in neuroscience reveals, again and again, that “emotional events often attain a privileged status in memory.” If we want to improve learner recall, we need to consider not only “the what” and “the how” of the learning experience, but also the feel. In other words, what’s the emotional experience we’d like learners to have and at what point in the learning process?

Here are five strategies:

Frame the experience: On the first day of orientation at MIT, our program director said, no matter what happens, “no [Sloan] Fellow left behind.” He explained that every aspect of our learning experience should be informed by looking out for one another, so that when courses and projects and life got hard, we’d be there for each other. He wanted to ensure that we were building a global network that we’d learn from during and after the program. Framing devices are powerful. They can personalize and inspire. Think about how you’ll frame the learning experience you design.

Start with a bang: Every quarter, we orient new people to our organization through what we call, BrightBytes Academy. It’s a powerful way for everyone to get to know our mission, vision, people, processes, and systems. Recently, we kicked off the event with a get-to-know-you, speed-dating activity. The Academy was over a week ago, and new people are still talking about this activity. Why? Because it was an active – you’re up and moving – social – you’re sharing personal stories in short amounts of time – and energizing way to get to know one another. It broke down a lot of barriers quickly, so that people could dive into team activities.

Bake it in: What emotions do you want learners to associate with the learning experience? What emotions should you anticipate? I used to teach chemistry and physics. There are times when I knew learners would feel overwhelmed, challenged, frustrated, or stupid. The same thing happened when I worked with new leaders. What I learned to do, over time, was to normalize those feelings. I made it clear that everyone – with few exceptions – has them. I also found opportunities, again and again, to check in with them on their progress, so that they could see how their perseverance and hard work were helping them overcome those feelings. Whenever possible, I created opportunities for us to laugh and to put the intensity of the experience into perspective.

End with intention: Think about how you want the learner to feel at the end of the learning experience. Relieved? Inspired? Overwhelmed? Proud? I remember a graduate professor who always ended his courses by reading out loud a personalized letter to the class. In it, he’d refer to each student by name and he’d share a thoughtful anecdote that conveyed how hard he’d worked to get to know each of us over the course of the term. He was the former commissioner of schools for the state of New York – someone who could have rested on his well-earned laurels to impress. Instead, he worked hard to end the learning experience well.

Help them see it: There’s nothing more powerful than “seeing” how you’ve learned. That’s why I like to build in an identical pre- and post-assessment of some kind. For example, if there’s a big takeaway you want learners to have, then kick it all off with a question you can revisit at the end of the experience, something that helps them see how much they’ve learned at the end compared to where they started. Of course, it puts pressure on you to design that experience well but, if you do, the a-ha moment for learners will be incredible.

We can all recall powerful learning experiences we’ve had. The emotions we associate with them may or may not be what the learning designer originally intended. As we design learning experiences for individuals, teams, or entire organizations, it makes sense that we’d want to tap into what neuroscience reveals, namely, that emotions play a large role in learning and memory. It’s an intentional way to let the learning live on.


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