Tip #3: Connections are the key to memory
As soon as the hippocampus captures learning, it first moves that learning into short-term memory and then eventually to long-term memory. Again, our knowledge of the brain can help us tap into the body's natural process for doing this.
Studies have shown that learning is the most likely to be retained and remembered when it can be connected to something we already know. Knowledge is stored in the brain as schemas, which are built up over time through experience. For example, think of bananas and you will recall instantly their color, shape, taste, smell, and whether you like them.
Schemas are neural networks and they get bigger and stronger as we add to them. Because I traveled in Venezuela, my schema for bananas includes the smaller, sweeter cambur, along with fond memories of baking with family.
Talent development professionals can take advantage of this natural process by attaching new learning to schemas that already exist in the learner's brain. The best teachers instinctively do this. Whether they are teaching calculus, software, or leadership, they explain the abstract in concrete ways that connect to learners' existing schemas.
Having been a dean at a major research university, I noticed that this was what distinguished the best math and science instructors from the rest. They were gifted at connecting to schemas that existed in the minds of young adults in a way that made the complex not only accessible, but even easy.
So how do you activate your learners' schemas? First, you must step into the perspective of your learners. Knowing your audience will help you know what is there to play with. Many of us have faced this with multigenerational groups when an example that works for Boomers generated blank stares with Millennials. Any learning design or facilitation should start with asking yourself, "Who is in the room and how can I make meaningful connections to something they already know?"
Another shift I have made is to share a few different models or examples instead of just one. This broad approach allows me to activate the schemas of more people in the room because I know that at least one is likely to hit the target. And this approach creates the added benefit of connecting the dots between those models.
For example, when I teach change management, I share a model of organizational development, research on how humans respond psychologically to change (known as the change curve), and Brené Brown's work on vulnerability. Together, these models provide the why and how change is both inevitable and difficult. It also shows the complex intersections that are at play, which provides insight about how to navigate them successfully.
I ask my learners to remember two times they experienced change, one that went smoothly and one that was difficult. This activates not only those specific memories, but also their individual schemas of change. When I pair this with hands-on activities for leading change effectively, the result is powerful and lasting.