Companies invest a lot of resources in training programmes, and expect participants to return on that investment. Unfortunately, more often than not, the knowledge doesn’t stick or the behaviours doest notchange significantly. Henry Roediger studies’ indicate that participants willforget more than half of the training content in the next 24 hours after the course. How could we reverse this? How do we design training programmes to increase retention of content and facilitate long term behaviour change?
The role of emotions
When I was 17 years old, I bought the school syllabus for my first Introduction to Psychology class. I couldn’t wait for the beginning of the school year to dive into it, and read it from front to back in one week. I still remember the content to this day, and can even recall the images and illustrations in some of the pages. I was curious and excited to learn something new for which I was passionate about!
This learning was self-directed and my emotions were engaged: the excitement and curiosity led me to pay attention to the content, which in turn led to learning and retention.
But what are emotions, exactly? The words of Saint Augustine remain as true today as when he spoke them in the 4th century: “What then is an emotion? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know”. We can describe emotions as a strong feeling deriving from our internal mood, circumstances, or relationships with others.
Emotions play a significant role in the learning environments, as they strongly influence selective attention and motivate people to take actions. The positive emotions proposed by Chai M. Tyng are the following four: Seeking (or curiosity), Lust, Care, and Play.
When learners feel positive emotions, their levels of directed attention increases and it facilitates memorisation.
Tyng studies also show that memories which are linked to positive emotions are more easily recalled than neutral emotions. Although the impact of negative emotions on memory remains inconclusive, the author found evidence that a state of mild confusion can also increase attention and motivation to decrease it, by engaging in the learning experience.
The use of emotions in training
While I was binge reading my Psychology syllabus, the other school books were ignored… My passion and intrinsic motivation were just lower for the other subjects. But in professional training, we can’t always count on learners to be motivated and emotionally involved in the subject of the training. Sometimes the training is mandatory, not interesting, or is the same old slides on a topic we cover every single year to be compliant with a regulatory obligation… How can we elicit the curiosity and interest of the learner? One of the ways to do so, is through storytelling. Stories are part of our culture and have been bringing people together for over thousands of years. Stories engage our curiosity and create an emotional bond, fostering a sense of empathy. Storytelling can also be used to make the learning objectives personal; to make them relevant to the participants; and to explore what’s in it for them. This will also activate the visual representation, especially if the language used is colourful and evoking.
Another way to activate an emotional response in training is adding an element of surprise. When a narrative or a sequence doesn’t proceed as anticipated, or according to people expectations, our attention is activated. More attention increases retention and facilitates memorisation.
Taking it a step further, using humour and jokes also creates a playful and joyful emotional anchor to a learning experience. An anecdote or funny story that creates relatedness is a good way to improve engagement. Jokes should, however, be used with moderation and taking into consideration the context of the training and the background of the learners.
To create a deeper commitment a learner should engage with the learning experience. By using metaphor and powerful symbology we can bring a behavioural change to life and make it stick. On a conference a few weeks ago, I met a person who told me about an exercise he had done several years ago in a training course that consisted of writing down the negative feelings he experienced at work and then symbolically throwing the paper away to the garbage bin. It had a powerful impact on him and years later he not only remembered the exercise but still applies the time management strategies discussed in the training course.
A word of caution on the use of negative emotions. Even though a mild sense of confusion might have a beneficial effect on provoking attention, manipulating negative emotions can easily backfire. A quiz in the beginning to bring to conscience a certain degree of ignorance of the subject matter might be useful. Be careful, though, not to overdo it, and avoid creating demotivation and abandonment. One way to do this is to use the “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” game design: start with very easy questions, to build confidence and reduce stress and progressively increase the complexity.
How to design a training for optimal retention
A training design that increases retention should consider tapping into the participant’s emotions. Here are a few tips to consider when designing a training experience:
· Use storytelling to engage the imagination and allow the participants to be active in the co-creation of the narrative;
· Use vivid language that engages emotional responses and evokes visual representations;
· Insert humour, jokes, and anecdotes to make it fun and memorable;
· Add an element of surprise to spike attention;
· Engage the participant with metaphors and symbols
Emotions are an integral part of what makes us Human, at the same level as our cognitive processes and behaviours. When preparing a training, bring it all together: what the participants will feel and the emotions they will experience. Consider also the interaction between the emotional arousal and the knowledge acquisition and skills development. You’ll create a more complete, engaging, and memorable training experience.
Training officer. PwC’s Academy
Art Kohn, Brain Science: Overcoming the Forgetting Curve, Learning Solutions Magazine
Chai M. Tyng et al., The influence of Emotion on Learning and Memory, Frontiers in Psychology
How do emotions affect memory?, Breakthrough Learning
Les schémas favorisent l’apprentissage !, eLearnAgency
Henry Roediger et al, The Power of testing memory, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Washington University
Jordi Vallverdu, Emotions: a Philosophical Introduction, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona