Companies spent $156 billion on training in 2011. But most training is informational and event based (i.e., attend a conference and get excited about the changes that can be made upon returning to work, only to throw the three-ring-binder of training materials on a shelf back at the office—never to be looked at again).

With this in mind, firms should reevaluate how they spend money on training. How do people really learn? How do they retain information, apply it, and ultimately create positive changes in behavior and performance?

Innovative companies use the latest neuroscience to develop program content and delivery so participants will actually apply the information in the real world. They use hands-on, experiential learning, role-play, games, simulations, improvisation, storytelling and discussions in the classroom—where participants move around and do both reflective and self-directed learning. This type of activity-based learning is especially effective for technical people, who tend to be highly kinesthetic and visual learners.

They also love the challenge of a game or competition. It is vital to include accountability, coaching and follow-up in the training process. Without accountability, it is human nature to set development strategies aside.

These principles of learning are spelled out in “Brain Rules” by neuroscientist John Medina.
  • The brain evolves while moving. People must move in order for them to learn. The worst possible classroom setting is a windowless room where everyone is looking at the backs of heads. Emotions more readily create memories that can be recalled.
  • Stories reinforce learning. Repeat to learn and learn to repeat. Reflective learning exercises, along with continuous follow-up and coaching, ensure participants apply the learning and create change. Participants also can roll this learning into their review processes and meet with accountability partners on a regular basis.
  • Sleep and nutrition are vital to preparing the brain to learn and retain. This should be emphasized throughout the learning process. Encourage participants to get a good night of sleep before training, and consider offering nutritious food for a program’s afternoon snack instead of cookies.
  • Stress prevents learning. Relaxation techniques help students learn more. Distractions from the workday add to stress and prevent learning from taking place. Encourage participants to shut down work for the day and fully participate. If they are worried about an email or a voicemail, it is impossible for them to absorb information from the session. 
  • Although vision is the most developed sense, all senses should be used whenever possible. Participants can listen to music and have in-depth discussions. They can perform hands-on, kinesthetic exercises. They can practice mindful eating and drinking. They can watch videos and look at other visual media.
  • Curiosity creates a sense of wonder. People will want to learn if their curiosity is piqued or challenged. 
Additional research from Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, reveals play is vital to a person’s well-being, success and ongoing education. In short, people learn more when they are having fun. And play is not just joyful and energizing; it’s deeply involved with human development and intelligence.

The gamification of learning is an emerging field. Testing someone at the end of the semester (or a training program) is just a boring evaluation. By testing someone every five seconds, it becomes a game. “When we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism and we’re more likely to reach out to others for help,” says Jane McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.

Companies can stop throwing money away on training that is easily forgotten—and encourage fundamental changes from employees—by using interactive, activity-based methodologies, such as games, simulations and other kinesthetic learning.


Brent Darnell is an expert in the neuroscience of learning. For more information, visit www.brentdarnell.com or www.change-u.com.