Training Industry Magazine - January/February 2018 - 11

SCIENCE OF LEARNING
SRINI PILLAY, M.D.

THE SCIENCE OF

PERSONALIZED LEARNING

The brain is the anatomical environment
where organizational learning takes root.
In order to learn effectively and efficiently,
people have to be able to pay attention,
absorb information, store that information
long-term, and recall it when necessary.
But learning is more than a mechanical
function. It involves a variety of less
tangible factors too.

Theme-based learning (e.g., "customercentricity," "resilience," or "agility") may be
helpful, but these words are rarely part of
anyone's everyday vocabulary and they
quickly fall on deaf ears. Few people get
out of bed and declare, "Today is the day to
be agile and resilient." Studies demonstrate
that for people to learn, they should be
able to identify with the content.

Given the number of factors that need to
be taken into consideration for learning to
be personalized, it is virtually impossible
to design a learning experience that is
perfectly personalized. Below are three of
the many scientific principles that could
assist in designing learning that is tailored
for the individual.

LEARNING IS MORE
THAN A MECHANICAL
FUNCTION.

BRAIN-BASED DIMENSIONS OF LEARNING
Understanding how the brain learns can
be valuable to learning professionals. Many
studies demonstrate that the brain learns
differently with reward, punishment, play
and experience. And it is also important
to understand what makes people want
to learn, how they learn consciously and
unconsciously, and how people learn
differently from one another too.
Recommendations: Use these brain-based
processes to assess your personalized
methodologies. For example, you might
ask, "Will this case history of a man help
female employees attend to the principles
it demonstrates?" "Is there reward or
punishment built into this learning?"
These kinds of questions will help you to
design and iterate on existing programs.

GROUND THE LEARNING IN "IDENTITY"
Within an organization, individuals differ
in their learning preferences.

Recommendations: Rather than grounding
learning in vague terms such as "agility,"
"empathy," or "team dynamics," which
frequently and inaccurately suggest
that one must always be agile, empathic
or team-oriented, it may make more
sense to structure the learning around
specific organizational challenges that
are relatable.
Individuals can choose
that are relevant for
case that they are not
challenges, assessment
way to enhance insight.

the challenges
them. In the
aware of their
tools can be a

COMBINE DATA AND COGNITIVE STYLES
There are many instruments to measure
learning styles. Honey and Mumford
describe four different kinds of learners:
Those who learn from experience, from
reflective observation, from exploring
associations
and
interrelationships,
or from doing or trying things with
practical outcomes. Felder and Silverman
categorize learners in terms of being
sensory or intuitive, visual or verbal, active
or reflective, and sequential or global.

However, detailed reviews by Pashler and
colleagues and An and Carr found that
there is no credible scientific evidence
(despite a multitude of studies) for the
validity and usefulness of "learning styles"
as a way to determine learning success.
Yang and colleagues found that
personalized learning is effective when
Felder and Silverman's learning styles
and cognitive styles were combined.
The specific cognitive style that they
researched was field independence versus
field dependence (i.e., the ability of the
subject to tune out the surrounding
context when information is presented).
Recommendations: Avoid personalizing
learning based on learning styles alone.
Rather, to start, combine learning and
cognitive styles, and test to see if this
actually impacts performance. To do this,
learning clearly defines the outcomes you
are measuring.

CONCLUSION
Personalized learning is both an art and
a science. And proper personalization
will likely require constant fine-tuning to
the specific challenges that people face
within organizations. Psychology and
brain research can contribute greatly to
idea generation as learning professionals
improve and iterate on their design of
personalized learning.
Dr. Srini Pillay is the CEO of NeuroBusiness
Group. He is also assistant professor (parttime) at Harvard Medical School and
teaches in the executive education programs
at Harvard Business School and Duke CE.
Email Srini.

T R A I N I N G I N DUSTR Y MA GAZ INE - ADAPTING LEARNING 2018 I WWW. T RAI NINGINDU S T RY . C OM/ MAGAZ I NE

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http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/660837 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC314395/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4936869/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2690881/ https://www.trainingindustry.com/magazine

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