Why Attention Is Essential To Learning And The Formation Of Memory 

Why Attention Is Essential To Learning And The Formation Of Memory 
Summary: Successful training programs should all be designed to ultimately keep people’s attention; it’s the foundation for memory and information retention. This is why an understanding how the brain receives and saves information will help Learning and Development (L&D) departments to make informed choices for effective learning methods.

Pay Attention! It’s The First Starting Point Of Learning And Essential To The Formation Of Memory

According to an infographic I saw recently from Bersin by Deloitte, “most learners won’t watch videos longer than 4 minutes” because the modern day worker is overwhelmed, easily distracted and impatient”. That will come as little surprise to many of you I’m sure, as employees are now accessing information and learning in a far more different way to how they did a few years ago. They are now inundated with different ways to learn, including virtual, mobile, and smartphone, and the traditional classroom-style, all of which beg the question, how much of what people learn do they actually remember afterwards and go on to use again in the long-term?

However learning is delivered, people must first pay attention to information if they are ultimately going to remember it. Second, it takes time to bring all the information given to them in a few moments into consciousness. For example, if students are given with too much information at once and are not told which aspects of the information they should pay attention to, they may have difficulty learning any of the information at all.

It also appears that scientists are unlocking the secrets of just how we remember and how we can enhance our memory. As such, knowing the science behind how memory is created is extremely important to educators for the whole teaching/learning process. One of the most compelling academic papers I have recently read was Alison Banikowski’s “Strategies to Enhance Memory Based on Brain Research” which has subsequently inspired much of what I feature in this article. Believe it or not, Alison’s paper, which was produced over 16 years ago in 1999, is about how children learn in school and what strategies are best used in this learning situation. Whether it’s in the classroom or in the board room, understanding how the brain saves what it is taught, is the foundation for how we retain what we learn and keep it as a memory. Some of the points Alison raises in her article still resonate for learning today, so it seems all the more important for companies to really take on board the concept of brain-based learning  strategies as they are setting the learning scene for pretty much everyone, from children to working professionals.

All trainers, be they in the school classroom, college, or workplace, must ensure that participants participate in learning, expand and grow their existing learning, engage in learning, and ultimately go on to repeat what they have learned. And what enables this to happen? Memory! As Alison Benikowski herself says, no teacher or trainer simply wants to “teach”. They want students to “learn”. They want learners to be able to organize, store, and retrieve knowledge and skills. And it’s by applying what we know about how the brain receives and remembers information that workplace trainers can focus on the “learning” aspect of the “teaching/learning” process.

How Science Helps Us Use Cognitive Learning Strategies To Keep People’s Attention

Like any other skill, I think we can all develop our attention for learning through regular practice and training. We’re likely to forget 70% of what we have learned unless we make a special effort to remember it, as information needs to be transferred from our short term memory to our long-term, permanent memory. Unfortunately, people can attend to only a small amount of information at any one time. People often can perform two or three well-learned, automatic tasks at one time (e.g. driving a car and listening to the Sat Nav at the same time). However, because of the limited capacity of human attention, only a small amount of information stored in the sensory register ever moves on to our every day, activity memory. But I do think the limitations of our memory also can be helped by learning styles that take a scientific account of just how the brain functions.

I have often referred to the AGES report in previous articles that I have written, as I do think the scientific insights it divulges give Learning and Development decision makers and trainers an important insight into the four key conditions required to enable really effective learning and the creation of lasting memory as a result of that learning: Attention, Generation, Emotion, Spacing. For the purpose of this article, I want to address the “Attention” part of the AGES model and explain why for me, as a learning and training provider, it should always be the key starting point for training programs because it’s where formation of memory starts, and the one around which the other three conditions all play a part to support.

For many companies, an updated learning and development process remains long overdue. Brandon Hall Group’s 2014 Learning and Development Benchmarking Study has revealed that more than 50% of companies have revisited their learning strategy less than two times in the last five years. It may seem surprising given the economic situation has improved for many companies in the wake of the recession, but it would seem that for many companies, learning has almost flat lined.

The good news is, however, according to the Brandon Hall Group’s Study, that one-third of companies are planning to increase their budget for Learning and Development over the next 12 months, with nearly 50% of these companies currently spending $100 per learner per year. That’s good news to hear, but if you read the AGES report and understand the four parts of the AGES concept, you will appreciate that the secret to making companies’ training work well, is down to the training methods and approaches they choose. They need to really understand how the brain captures and retains information and stores them as memory so “teaching” can really become “learning”.

As I mentioned right at the beginning of this article, the “modern day worker is overwhelmed, easily distracted, and impatient,” and this means Learning and Development departments need to realize people are learning from more varied sources nowadays with one of the most popular being mobile or smartphone learning. Of smartphone users, 91% turn to their devices for ideas while completing a task. Brands like Home Depot and M·A·C are even using mobile video to reach people in these "I-want-to-do" micro-moments! Why is it so popular? Because the way and time in which it’s delivered is more likely to keep our attention, and as such, is more likely to be stored and remembered.