A few years ago, I took a course in public speaking. And the instructor suggested that we practice our speeches while bouncing a ball. I thought this was odd advice, not to mention the fact that I’m too uncoordinated to bounce a ball and talk at the same time. But I tried it. And not only did the regular movement help me keep a steady rhythm in my speech, but I found it much easier to memorize what I wanted to say.
That was my first introduction to the power of physical movement in learning. It’s been well-established that regular exercise is healthy for the brain. But muscle movement can also help you retain and recall newly learned information.
The brain link between moving and learning
Our brains mainly manage fine motor control from the cerebellum. And research has shown that the cerebellum in turn stimulates areas of the cortex involved in memory, attention and spatial perception. Although we still don’t completely understand complex brain systems, there seems to be a strong biological connection between motor control and learning. There’s even speculation that the brain’s higher-level cognitive functions may have evolved first to help us move around successfully in the environment.
Actors have long tapped the brain-muscle connection. When they have to memorize pages of dialog, they use their accompanying movements on stage to help them remember. Helga Noice, psychology professor at Elmhurst College, has studied this phenomenon for years and notes that even months later, an actor can remember dialog associated with movement better than a monologue delivered standing still.
Other research establishes a strong behavioral link between movement and learning. When learners link new concepts with actions, they have another channel for understanding complex ideas. Studies have even shown that if you’re watching someone else demonstrate a task, the motor-focused areas of your brain activate and help you retain the information.
And movement helps us focus on what we’re learning because motor control requires attention. While passively watching or hearing new information, it’s easy for the mind to wander, but actions keep us alert.
Learning-by-doing as a brain-based training strategy
All this evidence suggests that when we have something new to learn, the best approach may be to combine some physical activity with new information. At work, we’d call this “learning by doing” or “on the job training.” It’s one of the most commonly used and overlooked strategies for acquiring job skills.
But perhaps this learning by doing, with its associated physical component, is really one of the most productive training strategies available. On-the-job training has the added advantage of taking place at work, so you’re learning in the same environment where you’ll use the new skills. All this contextual information helps with retention as well as understanding.
And much of the work we do involves muscle memory. Whether we’re running machinery, stocking shelves or using software, we don’t really learn the skill until the gestures and movements required become natural.
Muscle memory, particularly where fine motor control like hand movement is involved, takes practice over time. But once your muscles have learned what to do, you don’t have to think about the motions. That’s why we get so frustrated when a popular software maker changes its interface or when the grocery store re-arranges all the products.
The benefits of training-by-doing for businesses
So why haven’t we focused corporate training programs on learning by doing? Most training still consists of content delivery to a passive audience. This has some advantages. You can deliver lectures to dozens or even thousands of people at once. You can deliver exactly the same message to your audience. You can identify who’s taken the class. And we’re all comfortable with the idea of learning in the classroom.
But learning and development specialists have long known that workers have a hard time translating classroom knowledge to work behaviors. As a result, many have suggested new ways to incorporate videos, simulations or 3D gaming into the classroom for more realistic practice. Sounds good, but these technologies require a large up-front investment of money and time.
There’s an easier way. If we put training back into the work environment and let people learn by doing, we’re making it easier for employees to learn. And we avoid a big technology purchase.
This approach means that we have to face the messiness of managing on-the-job training. It means work and training blend together, and managers have to become much more involved in employee development. But it also has real benefits.
Companies who manage and guide on-the-job training have measured improvements in savings and performance:
- Employees learn skills faster.
- Productivity increases.
- Training costs drop.
- Absenteeism decreases.
- Turnover slows.
The 70/20/10 model says that we mostly learn informally, which often means learning by doing. This isn’t an accident. We’re hard wired to want to get our hands on whatever we’re learning. We’re chomping at the bit to get in there and get going. If your training program can enhance the way we most like to learn, you’ll find much better results with less cost and effort.
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