Learning in IC

Making sense of learning

On the tip of many tongues, the science of how individuals learn continues to be a source of interest among audiences. IC Magazine spoke to Simon Scofield, Co-Founder of training provider Hamilton Mercer, and Dr Philip Higham, Reader in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Southampton, about how learning and training can be used together to develop employees effectively.

By Amy Honeywell ///////////////////////////////////////

Everyone, from interns to CEOs, benefits from training and ongoing development, but how do you go about improving your training? With so much low-quality information on the internet that isn’t backed up by science, it can be difficult to know where to begin – so we went to the experts to set the record straight.

Hamilton Mercer has been working with organisations such as Johnson & Johnson, the NHS, and Barnardo’s for more than 10 years, training staff at all levels through all sectors.

The bedrock of their training is 70:20:10. The concept that 70% of learning is done on the job, 20% is done socially (for example, talking to managers and colleagues) and 10% is formal learning in a classroom environment. In order to optimise the 70% learning opportunity at work, it is essential to ensure that the social and formal learning elements are conducted in a way that makes the information easy to recall when at work.

This famous ratio is often used as the backbone for training and development programmes, and is based on research that showed when and how most people learn. While this is the foundation of many training programmes, it is essential that these percentages are interpreted on a case-by-case basis. This is because the original study was carried out only on men. When the study was repeated on women, the results differed greatly, showing that, for women, the optimum proportions were 55:40:5.

Simon Scofield,
Co-Founder of Hamilton Mercer

Simon explained: “What we can take from this is that there isn’t a literal representation of the best way everybody learns, the term was coined based on the original piece of research conducted.”

Identifying how best we absorb and recall information can be as limiting as it is influential. Performing a Google search for ‘types of learner’ brings up article after article explaining how to identify which of the three, four, seven or eight types of learner you are. In the seemingly unending list of search results, there is no clear answer. Dr Philip Higham said: “There are actually 71 different learning styles identified so far in literature. If 71 are identified with a simple Google search (and tomorrow it may be 81), then it ceases to have any explanatory power and fails to serve the purpose of categorising learners meaningfully.

“And sure enough, when the notion of ‘learning style’ is put to an empirical test, the evidence comes up short.

“In other words, the whole notion of learning styles is, in my view (and in the view of many other scientists), a myth. “There are certainly some learning techniques (e.g. recall practice) that are better than others (e.g. highlighting textbooks), but these techniques tend to be beneficial for all learners, not just those with a particular learning style.”

The reason behind this is that learning in a way that doesn’t appeal to our natural abilities introduces an element of desirable difficulty. Learning in a way that is challenging to an individual is proven to help them retain and recall information. Dr Higham added: “An example of how putting someone in a challenging learning environment can aid their development would be students taking longhand notes during a lecture, rather than annotating printouts of presentation slides. Taking longhand notes would make the learning experience more difficult than annotating the slides, which might have created an illusion that little was learned.

However, when tested on their knowledge, the students who took the longhand notes excelled.”

With each new generation of learners come changes in learning patterns and trends. Today, the focus for many trainers is not on building competencies, but teaching learners how to handle situations the right way. This trend has been described as ‘horizontal learning versus vertical development’.

Simon explains: “Giving people more skills is like installing apps on a smartphone. However, if you don’t upgrade the operating system, the apps won’t
work properly.

“‘Upgrading the operating system’ is known as vertical development. This is where we increase an individual’s level of sophistication cognitively, so they can recognise that their maturity, values and beliefs may actually be holding them back from handling
a situation effectively.”

An example of this would be that in stressful situations, some peoples’ productivity levels go down and some remain the same. When asked why their productivity levels are lower, employees will likely blame the work environment rather than take responsibility for their actions – this is a developmental issue. Simon adds: “Our work environment doesn’t literally cause us to become stressed, it is our interpretation of the work environment.

If someone is raising their voice, why does this have to be interpreted as anger rather than concern? Ultimately, it’s the context of communication that makes a difference. We ask people to always look at themselves as much as their skills.”

Learning and training are two different beasts, but by understanding how we learn and how to implement learning techniques, we can make training more effective. If as much as 70% of learning is done on the job, then it is paramount that the traditional learning aspect is as beneficial to learners as possible.

By understanding how best we learn and then implementing these techniques, employees will gain more from their training. ”

Dr Higham’s mythbusters

An expert in his field, Dr Philip Higham sheds some light on common misconceptions.

People tend to fixate on finding out what type of learner they are, when it really doesn’t matter. Learning in a way that challenges you is the key to improving knowledge retention.

So far, a whopping 71 ‘types of learner’ have been identified, and this figure keeps rising. This is an indication that the concept is not useful for building learning practices around.

Making mistakes is an important part of learning and not something that should be feared, as long as there is feedback. Mistakes provide the opportunity to problem solve, cementing ways to avoid making the same slip up again in the learner’s mind.

Many people believe that if initial learning is easy and fluent, the information learned will be retained in memory for a long time. Actually, the opposite is generally true: overcoming obstacles and working hard during the learning process leads to the most durable memory retention.

Top tips: Learning techniques that will change how you think

‘Just in time’ learning

Aim to solve particular problems immediately by sourcing answers and guidance from easy-to-access resources. Spend some time familiarising yourself with how to solve the problem before utilising this information and carrying out the task straight away. YouTube is a fantastic resource for video tutorials and is often a good place to start when it comes to finding quick and accessible answers.


Have a large amount of information to learn? Instead of cramming, space your learning sessions out. For example, if you have six hours to familiarise yourself with new data, try spending one hour a week for six weeks learning the information, rather than cramming for six hours back to back. This method is proven to improve knowledge retention. Cramming often means that the majority of knowledge is forgotten quickly.

Make it stick

Desirably-difficult learning techniques are what make knowledge stick. When taking in new information, practise recalling it from memory, as this will help to consolidate it into long-term memory. Then rehearse using the new knowledge through visualisation and elaborate on what you have learnt, linking it to existing knowledge. These three steps are proven to improve knowledge retention.

Create step-by-step tools

Best practice checklists and visual aids such as cheat sheets ensure desired behaviours and actions are always followed during a task. Store the tools in a central hub so others can access them – this is a great way to share knowledge and improve all-round consistency of performance within teams. Encourage people to suggest updates to the tools based on their experience of applying them on the job.

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