A Scientific Approach to Education Programs Has a Positive Impact on Learners’ Job Performance & Career Advancement

Why do people invest their time and money in education programs? Because they want to enhance their career prospects by improving their resume and job performance. This goal requires behavior change—using their new skills, knowledge, and attitudes to do their job more effectively and efficiently. Are your online learning programs designed to change learner behavior?

At the 2024 Learning Business Summit hosted by Leading Learning, Brian McGowan, co-founder and chief learning officer of ArcheMedX, recommended designing and delivering programs that “leverage best practices in cognitive science (how we think), learning science (how we learn), and behavioral science (how we perform).”

How to take a scientific approach to education programs

McGowan shared dozens of research studies illustrating these scientific principles at work. He described the drivers for how people think, learn, and perform and then explained how to leverage these drivers to help learners digest, retain, and apply new competencies.  

Cognitive science: how learners think

Driver #1: Thinking fast. Our brains naturally take shortcuts and apply biases at the subconscious level. We spend up to 90% of our time in this “thinking fast” mode. But you can prime learners subliminally to override this mode and react to content in a predetermined way.

Driver #2: Mindset. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset popularized the concepts of fixed and growth mindsets. Researchers found that learners who believed they had a growth mindset earned a full grade letter improvement. Help learners adopt a growth mindset: if they believe it, they can achieve it.

Driver #3: Priming/framing. Reading is believing. You can prime a learner’s mindset with a paragraph. Researchers told one group the skill of negotiation could be developed (growth mindset). They told the other group you either have the skill or you don’t (fixed mindset). People in the growth group were 66% more likely to choose harder, stretch coursework and were 90% better at negotiation tasks.

It’s hard to believe how gullible our brains are. Our memories are highly impressionable. Subliminal symbols (priming) affect our creativity, grit, and reflection. Mindset affects our reflection, persistence, learning, and performance.

Learners can change their mindset, even when they don’t think they can. Increase their motivation, productivity, reflection, and persistence by priming them. In marketing and pre-course content, reassure learners that skills are not innate; they can develop them. Brains of all ages can acquire new habits, skills, and knowledge.

Learning science: how learners learn

Driver #1: Desirable difficulties. We resist friction even when we know it’s good for us. Learners don’t always embrace the most effective instructional design practices—quizzing, practice, interleaving, and spacing. They push back on role play and interactive exercises because they want to learn in ways that feel good, not challenging. They overestimate how much they can learn by choosing the least effective (easiest) learning formats.

The marketing challenge is convincing someone to spend money on something that might make them feel uncomfortable or disrupt their life. Priming can help adjust their attitude. Remind people about the positive outcomes they can expect despite the challenges. Regularly educate your audience about how learning really happens and how they can become better learners.

Driver #2: Forgetting. Learners underestimate how much and how quickly they’ll forget new information. It deteriorates within minutes unless you have a plan to reinforce it over time with spaced practice.

Driver #3: Learning behaviors. Most people never learned how to learn, which is why they rarely behave in ways that support learning. Teach them how to learn. Prepare them for educational programs with a free mini course that covers:

•    Overcoming obstacles
•    Note-taking
•    Prompting regular reflection to review what they’ve learned and how it relates to their prior body of knowledge
•    Accountability
•    Finding support

an online learning student mastering new knowledge thanks to her associations scientific approach to education programs

Behavioral science: how learners perform

Driver #1: Nudging. Nudges are external cues or prompts that help learners make the right decision at the right time. They override the brain’s fast-thinking mode and remind them of the positive or negative consequences of a behavioral choice.

You’ve likely relied on nudging in your own life by:

•    Laying your clothes out the night before going to a 6 a.m. gym class
•    Using a smaller plate at dinner to eat less
•    Using auto-renewals for subscriptions

We are creatures of our environments. Add nudges to the learner’s environment.

Driver #2: Sparking change. Behavior change is caused by a combination of motivation, ability, and nudging. You can influence these inputs.

Motivation: Increase extrinsic (incentivizing carrots and sticks) and intrinsic (Maslow’s hierarchy) motivational drivers. Dan Pink’s book Drive is a valuable resource on intrinsic motivation, which he says is sparked by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Ability: Learners must balance resources that affect their level of ability, such as:

•    Time—if it takes too long, they’re less likely to do it
•    Physical effort—if it’s too strenuous, they’re less likely to do it
•    Complexity—ditto 
•    Novelty—ditto 
•    Deviance—if it’s counter-intuitive, they’re less likely to do it

Reduce barriers to ability by providing training and support and by simplifying the enrollment and learning processes.

Nudges: Build nudges into program design. Nudges can spark motivation and improve a learner’s ability when they:

•    Make it easier to do a task
•    Make it simpler to choose a behavior
•    Make something a default

Use nudges that make it easier for a learner to make the right decision and change their behavior.

Driver #3: Stages of change. Learners move through five stages of change.

Precontemplation: The prospective learner isn’t thinking about change and doesn’t even realize it’s necessary. Like the awareness stage of marketing, make it personal. Help them see why change is necessary for them. Try fun (think Facebook) or serious self-assessments to help them become more aware of their limitations.

Contemplation: The prospect isn’t quite ready to commit to change. Push them off the fence. Show them the positive impact of change—and negative impact of not changing. Encourage them to evaluate the pros and cons of behavior change. Dangle a picture of positive outcomes in front of them, like testimonials—social proof of the impact of change.

Preparation: Finally, the prospect recognizes they will benefit from changing their behavior. Help them develop learning habits and overcome barriers to learning—such as strengthening the abilities mentioned above, like time, novelty, etc.

Action: The learner is changing behaviors. They’re seeing results but need to strengthen their commitment to stick with it. Build in nudges to help them overcome obstacles. Remind them of the long-term benefits.

Maintenance: After the program, the challenge is not regressing back to old behaviors. Stay in their lives. Suggest or provide resources to apply new competencies back on the job.

Most learning content focuses on the Action stage, but learners need content and support for all stages of change. Develop a plan to move prospective learners through the first few stages and to help them maintain their new competencies.

Know when and how to prime and nudge learners so they seriously consider your education programs and partake in them with a growth mindset. Provide support throughout their learning journey. Teach them how to learn. Follow up with them so you know whether your programs are making the desired impact on their job performance and career goals. When you understand how learners think, learn, and perform, you can design and deliver more effective prof

behavioral science
learning science
instructional design
course development
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