Post Webinar Q&A: The Science Behind How Our Employees Learn

The science behind how your employees learn is nothing short of a fascination for many. For Barbara Oakley, it’s an obsession! Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University and the creator of some of the most popular courses on Coursera. She focuses on the fundamentals of how people learn, combining neuroscience and social behavioral analysis. She believes (and research shows!) that online learning done well, can not only match but surpass in-person teaching. 

Barbara Oakley’s courses on Coursera:

Learning How to Learn, Powerful Mental Tools to Master Tough Subjects
Uncommon Sense Teaching
Uncommon Sense Teaching: Teaching Online 
Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential
Uncommon Sense Teaching Part 2: Building Community and Habits of Learning
Learning How to Learn for Youth

In partnership with Barbara Oakley, we’ve produced a resource around learning in the workplace, The Science of Learning: 5 Ways to Make your L&D Strategy More Successful. We also recently hosted a webinar with her about best practices for building an impactful L&D strategy. After a successful session with over 4,000 registrants, this blog post answers some of the additional questions posed by our attendees that we couldn’t get to respond to during the session!

Building a habit of learning

How do you guide employees who say they don’t have time to learn?

Barb: The trick is to encourage employees to create a schedule and set themselves a minimum time to learn every day. It doesn’t have to be much, 15 minutes a day is enough, it adds up! 

In addition, remember that the most important thing for successful learning is retrieval practice – bringing information to mind to boost learning. This can be exercised in various formats, and during gaps throughout the employee’s day – whilst commuting, before showering, or before bed.

How do you bring out the learning spirit in long-standing employees?

Barb: When you’re interacting with someone who’s super enthusiastic about something, your mirror neurons echo that. That’s why leading by example when learning can really make a difference – for example, set yourself learning goals, learn regularly, and share what you’ve learned with your team. It can infect your employees to learn by triggering them to mirror you. Body language is incredibly important in this respect, as is making sure you are genuine. So remember – practice what you preach! 

What suggestions do you have for employees with learning disabilities?

Barb: First off, recognize that employees with learning disabilities can be the most valuable employees in your business. When certain systems in the brain don’t function as well, other systems grow to compensate for their weaknesses. Employees with dyslexia can be very good at detecting patterns. Those with autism have an extraordinary ability to concentrate and those with attention deficits are typically very creative. 

Online learning platforms like Coursera are well-equipped to support different types of learners thanks to their up-to-date technology. For example, the subtitles and shorter-form content make it easier for all employees to follow the lessons, whilst LevelSets helps assign everyone to content that’s suitable for their level of knowledge. 

Keeping employees learning

When and how should an employee be learning on the job?

Barb: Traditionally, many of us believed that the only way to learn effectively was by watching a lecture. But having people learn through other methods, such as through active learning and practice, can be even more beneficial. Research shows that students perform better when combining various types of interactions, as with cohort-based learning – for more details on this, check out our eBook here

Giving employees small breaks when learning is also important. (Of course, don’t provide these breaks in the middle of teaching key concepts–this can make it difficult for employees to consolidate and remember what they are learning.)

Does it motivate employees when they can see how well their fellow employees are learning?

Barb: It absolutely does! Competition can be a very helpful form of cooperation. It can inspire employees to do more than they think they can do. For example, when I was studying Chinese, I thought ‘how will I ever learn so many new vocabulary words?’ But I saw others in my class learning all those words each week, so that motivated me to do the same. People may argue that competition can make learning stressful.  But actually, having a little stress can be healthy and beneficial. Perhaps surprisingly, when slightly stressed, people can learn more effectively. 

Is achieving the state of “flow” the same as the focused mode of thinking?

Barb: When you are focused, you are indeed in a state of flow.  But you are not in the uncomfortable, slightly stressed state that typifies “deliberate practice.”  Deliberate practice, which is when you learn best, means struggling hard with learning something difficult and pushing yourself to the limit by focusing on what you find most difficult. Flow, on the other hand, is about enjoying the moment. It is resting on the laurels of the learning you’ve already done–not advancing your learning to higher levels.

Correcting bad habits 

How can we convince employees not to multi-task when learning?

Barb: Most jobs, and most people, benefit from concentrated focus when they are working on a task. Employees switching tasks at work are 30-40% less effective than if they focus on one task at a time and work on each task more deliberately. But there are exceptions–about 2% of people can be classified as “super-taskers.” These rare individuals, who have differences in their dopamine receptors, can multi-task seamlessly. Supertaskers excel at jobs such as being an emergency room physician, a race car driver, or a master chef–jobs that require rapid switching between tasks.  

The best way to encourage your employees to focus on one task and stick to it without procrastinating is to encourage the use of the Pomodoro Technique, which we explain further in our eBook here

Is it better to get employees to learn during office time or at their own leisure?

Barb: Personally, I believe it’s incumbent on the employee to build their own career. An employee is hired by their company to do a certain amount of work. The extra fine-tuning of themself as individuals is not only going to benefit the business but will also benefit that person in the long run, in their career. 

To put it another way, when we are learning, we are giving back to who we are working for, as well as giving back to society itself. A company, I believe, should encourage learning. An employee, on the other hand, should ensure their life includes learning and advancing their skills.  


Interested in embracing a learner-first L&D strategy? Learn more about how Coursera for Business can help you or talk to a consultant today.

The post Post Webinar Q&A: The Science Behind How Our Employees Learn appeared first on Coursera Blog.

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