Future of learning blog

BASIC ideas that ruin learning and what to do about them

This week my inaugural ‘Take 5’ video launched. A series of very short videos sharing our top tips on how to support your learners, build your training better and eventually help your organisation too. I start with the BASIC ideas that ruin learning, you can watch the video below:

Training is full of challenges but removing these elements will mean learning sticks so people learn and perform better at work. The BASIC mnemonic will help you remember some of the things to avoid when designing or delivering learning. And stands for:

B – Boredom
A – Abstract ideas
S – Stress
I – Information overload
C – Cognitive overload 

A mnemonic itself is a form of chunking – once you’ve learned which ideas correspond to which letters you only need to remember BASIC and it becomes a key to unlock the other linked information. So let’s explore more on each point: 

Boredom is worse than pain 

An study reported in Science Magazine demonstrated  that when people were left in a room on their own with nothing to do they preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves than remain bored. Overcoming boredom is seemingly straightforward – you must devise training that is not boring, however the rest of the mnemonic might help with that!

Abstract ideas vs concrete experience

Our brains evolved to process multisensory, concrete experiences long before we used abstract concepts or language. You can more easily re-imagine sensory experiences and the effect in your brain is almost the same as experiencing the original event so is an excellent reinforcer of learning.  Research on sensory metaphors: ‘as dry as dust’; ‘as rough as sandpaper’ shows the same parts of your brain are excited as when you actually touch dry dust or rough sandpaper. So when designing learning experiences give people objects to touch, smells, things to look at, sounds and physical and emotional experiences, even when the concept itself is abstract.

Stress reduces learning 

Active learners perform better than stressed ones. Stress creates overactivity in your amygdala, diverting energy and attention from your rational thinking brain. It also kills hippocampal cells damaging your ability to lay down memories and retrieve them.  Get people engaged and paying attention with sufficient challenge but when you notice they’re feeling under too much pressure then work with them to reduce it – simple breathing exercises or physical activity will go a long way to reducing stress inducing hormones and neurotransmitters.

Information overload makes you feel sick

You’ve probably often been asked to provide too much content with not enough time but how do you challenge those requests? When we experience overload it creates Stress, which as you already know is unhelpful, and our brains simply can’t digest the information. It’s much the same as if you ask someone to eat too much at once – neither useful or pleasant. 

Your brains need the big picture and gist first before you can process detail and it takes time to digest it. So rather than dive in with too much content provide a starter, mind maps, a route map, signposts, to whet their appetite. Link to what they already know. Chunk detail into manageable amounts and let people explore at their own pace. Help them feel curious to explore the detail for themselves rather than serving it up as one huge meal.

Cognitive overload is exhausting

Your prefrontal cortex can only process one idea at a time and when you’re multitasking it means you do all the tasks less well. Try this simple exercise:

  • Time yourself and write the numbers 1-26 followed by the letters A-Z
  • Time yourself again and this time write 1 then A, 2 then B, 3 then C… etc up to 26/Z
  • How much longer did it take?

That was a minor experience of cognitive overload whilst you switched your attention between letters and numbers. Your prefrontal cortex, which is significant for all cognitive activity, is energy hungry and tires quickly. To prevent your brain literally running out of energy you need to chunk information, use images because they use a different part of your brain, take time to reflect and reduce distractions and multitasking.

We hope this mnemonic helps you avoid these BASIC ideas. But if you want to learn more about the science of learning, and give your training the neuroscience advantage, check out our Train Smarter programme.