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Jan Hills

Head Heart + Brain


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Transferring learning is obvious – except it’s not


In this series, originally posted on our sister site TrainingZone, we look at a number of myths which have grown up around good learning strategy and design and take the findings from neuroscience to confirm or bust them. This series is drawn from the book Brain-savvy Business: 8 principles from neuroscience and how to apply them. Jan is giving away 20 books, one to each reader who contributes a short example of how they will use the ideas in the series or of how they have applied neuroscience to learning.

Think about these questions as you read the article.

  • What are the benefits for programme participants of learning the new skills or ways of working and thinking?
  • Do people understand the goals of the programme and has time been spent ensuring they're personalised?
  • Has thought been given to the ongoing support needed to embed the new skills?

Even the best programmes in the world are no use if the learnings themselves aren’t applied, so it’s vital that participants understand from the outset the reasoning behind the material.

It’s also important to facilitate genuine insight as this can transform an idea from being merely interesting into something that begins the process of changing behaviour.

Finally, applying new knowledge helps reinforce the connection between a new idea and a new way of working.

At a neurological level, applying information or insight increases the connections in the brain.

When we make a conscious effort to store new knowledge through reasoning or insight, our memory retention improves.

Pieces of information are not stored in the hippocampus as discrete memories as they would be on a computer hard drive, for instance, but are instead made up of webs of data stretching across the brain that are linked together.

The more associations there are connecting the original information to a memory, the stronger the links are and the easier it is to recall that information later on.

The effect of storage on retention

When we make a conscious effort to store new knowledge through reasoning or insight, our memory retention improves.

Even if the initial conclusion we reach is wrong and we have to re-examine our thinking before reaching the correct one, it produces better recall than just studying the right answer for the same period of time.

Also, immediate feedback on any errors significantly increases accuracy of future retrieval.

The insufficiency of repetition

Historically, we’ve tended to believe that repetition is the way to ensure memory moves from the working memory system in the brain to the long-term memory.

We now know this isn’t sufficient.

Both psychological and neuroscientific research show that the key to learning and building long-term memory is to create ownership of learning content. This ownership occurs when participants are motivated to understand, when they can put the information into a context which is relevant to them and when they can apply knowledge in their own way.

So what do learners need to do?

This means that learners should be encouraged to do something with the insight or information they’re supplied with.

The more grounded and profound the application of knowledge – the more thought they have to put into it and the more ways there are of applying it – the more likely it is to be retained.

Metacognition means thinking about thinking.

For example, asking learners to elaborate on ideas engages the hippocampus, which is at the heart of memory creation.

Even though genuine personal insight is the best way to ensure memory retention and recall, research by author Eric Jenson suggests that it also helps to present learners with data and then ask them to organise or reorganise it themselves or add their personal experience, perhaps by creating a leadership model for a specific organisation or a tool for working with a particular team.

These personalised tasks are more effective than providing a pre-defined, one-size-fits-all model.


Metacognition means thinking about thinking. It’s a skill that, when well developed, is an important part of effective learning. There are many ways to get people thinking metacognitively, such as helping them to understand what they already know and what they don’t know, and asking them to think about how new information is relevant to them and their success (see the first article in this series).

For example, getting people to reflect on their learning at the end of each day has been shown to enhance application and retention.

Knowing what you know

Self-evaluation is the most well-known method of increasing learners’ awareness of what they know and don’t know. Giving short tests of knowledge and understanding and quizzes have been proven to enhance learning.

Research has also shown that memory is enhanced by retesting a short time later. 

These tests, whether they’re given as part of the programme or the participants take it upon themselves to formulate them, reinforce the links between information and application because every time a person retrieves knowledge, the link between a cue and that knowledge is reinforced.

This approach works particularly well when incorporated into online or e-learning programmes, for example giving people a short quiz at the end of each part of the programme and also as a light-hearted exercise during face-to-face events.


Debriefs can take many forms such as quizzes, reviews and visualisations. All of these trigger retrieval of the recently learned information and improve long-term retention.

Getting people to reflect on their learning at the end of each day has been shown to enhance application and retention.

Asking the learner to visualise situations in which they could apply their new learning or to make decisions within the context of the new data also helps reinforce what has been learned.

Again, these activities increase associations between information and application.

It isn’t easy to monitor how much new information is being absorbed by learners in real time, but you can engage them in activities that provide external validation of the process.

This might simply mean getting people talking to each other about ideas rather than sitting back and listening to presentations.

Or it might involve encouraging participants to invent their own ways of applying new knowledge and analysing their work in order to get an idea of how well information is being integrated. In our experience, not only does this aid application but it’s also more energising and fun for participants.

You can read about some of the ways we’ve done this in our case studies.


Reflection offers ways for learners to apply content and to make their own connections between new ideas and their existing knowledge.

This will be more valuable than simply telling them about the connections between the content and their work. Tools and exercises that require people to think about how they can apply new ideas work well, bearing in mind the brain’s attention constraints, as they offer opportunities to vary activities and also give the brain a chance to relax without having to resort to traditional refreshment breaks.

For example, you might give learners questions and tasks that ask them to apply learnings to themselves or their team and to reflect on that learning.

Find out or ask them to find out what they know and what they may still need to understand, and then set up the conditions for insight by creating the space and time for quiet, internal reflection. One way to do this is to encourage learners to reflect on their thought process surrounding a solution.

Ask the question, “How many different ways are you considering applying this knowledge?” Then create the opportunity for reflect on the question.

Peer learning, group work and storytelling are all common in learning environments. But the full benefits of these may not always get tapped. One thing they all have in common is that they involve learners thinking about themselves in the context of the broader social environment.

Connecting new information with the self is one way to create a network of associations that enhance activity in brain areas involved in memory, which has been shown to help with recall as well as application.


Anecdotally, individuals say they apply only around 1% of the learning they experience from programmes designed to create behavioural change.

It’s higher for technical learning, but nevertheless it looks like many companies are wasting 99% of their behavioural learning budget and this includes most leadership programmes.

This is mainly due to the lack of embedding after a learning event, the lack of experiential learning and the uncertainty in the minds of participants about the link between the behaviours and future success.

It looks like many companies are wasting 99% of their behavioural learning budget

Embedding new knowledge, skills and ways of thinking is really part of the application process, but in our learning model we single it out for particular attention because we find it is an area that’s often neglected.

You can read about the science of forming new thought patterns and behavioural habits on our website.

Embedding the practical application of new skills and insight relies on incorporating habit creation at every stage of the learning.

When learning takes place on the job, helping learners to create new habits speeds up skill-development and consistency of application.

When habits begin to be built in a formal programme, it increases the return on the investment.

Jan is giving away 20 books, one to each reader who contributes a short example of how they will use the ideas in the series or of how they have applied neuroscience to learning. 

The next article in this series will go live on Friday May 6th. The full article series can be seen here.

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Jan Hills


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