Article • April 29, 2019

The science of learning & why it matters

By Karen Foster

Just as healthcare professionals use clinical evidence and scientific theories to inform their treatment decisions, at Salience we think that learning decisions must take the same approach. As such, we incorporate an understanding of what research is uncovering about how the brain “works” as well as historical theories around how adults learn as the foundation for our work.  

What do we mean by the Science of Learning? 

The human brain is amazing.  Our abilities to think, reason, learn, and make decisions—all enabled by a three-pound lump of tissue—are truly phenomenal.  But, as remarkable as it is, science has shown that the brain has several adaptations to assist it in processing the enormous volume of information it receives.  Some of those adaptations come in the form of biases, such as overconfidence and primacy biases, and other phenomena, such as system 1 vs. 2 thinking.  Like many features, these are helpful in some situations but can be a hindrance in others. Science has shown that these adaptations have a proven impact on the process and output of our thinking and, as a result, our behavior.

In addition, more than 100 years of observations have informed scientific theories regarding the optimal conditions for adult learning. Malcolm Knowles’ theory of adult learning (andragogy) is one example.  As far back as the 1960s, Knowles summarized even earlier work from Edward Lindeman in the 1920s that adults need to be involved in their instruction, leverage experience as the basis for learning activities, understand and buy into “why” they are doing the learning activities and anchor the learning around problems as opposed to content.

Why is the Science of Learning important? 

At Salience, we believe learning programs and experiences that incorporate the brain’s adaptations and the theories of adult learning into their design, development and execution have a greater chance of hitting the mark. We also believe that anchoring L&D professionals in the science and theories of adult learning empowers them to be more valuable, strategic partners to the organization.

These reasons can result in all sorts of downstream benefits to the learner and the organization:

  1. Improved knowledge and skill adoption
  2. Increased motivation for individuals to own their learning
  3. Competitive differentiation and better business results 

From Theory to the Real-World

Think about a recent planning, cycle, or business unit meeting you’ve attended.  Now, think about the quantity and duration of the sessions you sat through to learn about new products, competitors, and important market topics. How effective were those sessions in building your knowledge or strengthening your skill set to enabling you personally to be more effective in your job? 

Based on our experience, we’d argue that many of those sessions left a lot of learning and valuable skill practice on the table.  Maybe they tried to deliver way too much information, causing cognitive overload. Or, they may have delivered the wrong level of detail for the audience, a bias known as the curse of knowledge.  Or, maybe they omitted the purpose, or ‘Why’, for the learning and thus failed to engage learners, a key element of andragogy.  The point is, most learning programs miss opportunities to drive effective learning because they don’t adequately consider the science of learning. 

What’s Next? 

The science of learning is a pretty complex topic, so we’ll try to break it down into bite-sized pieces.  Over the next few posts, we will introduce some of the biases and phenomena that affect how the brain works.  We’ll also provide some specific examples of how they manifest themselves.  Most importantly, we’ll describe ways to get around those challenges to make learning programs even more effective!   

Article • April 28, 2019

What’s in a name? The meaning behind Salience Learning

"What’s in a name? The meaning behind Salience Learning" blog post image

What does Salience mean?

A red dress in a sea of black. The sound of fingernails on a chalkboard in a quiet classroom. The smell of a gas leak on an otherwise normal afternoon (watch out for that one)!  Salience means standing out from someone’s or something’s surroundings. 

Salience is triggered by novelty or unexpectedness or can also be created by shifting one’s attention to a feature.  In other words, something becomes salient when something is noticed, its importance is recognized and it can be recalled again in the future. It makes sense then that being salient, or memorable, is an important part of learning. 

In fact, there is a whole theory of learning called The Salience Theory of Learning. A simplified summary of this theory is that our brains constantly create and organize basic units of learning called amalgams, that are in essence neural entries or, for lack of a better term, memories. These memories are stimulated by salient events (i.e., those events or information that stand out).  As our brains try to fit these memories together in a scaffolding of sorts, we build off of them to learn new skills and do familiar tasks more efficiently. 

The implication for learning is broad but two themes are important. These themes are that we need to design learning activities that simultaneously:

  1. Stand out enough for participants to create new memories
  2. Enable these memories to tie together with each other—and with past memories—to help form new skills

Unfortunately, most training misses the mark.  It either overwhelms participants with too much information and/or fails to make the most important information stand out. Basically, nothing is salient.

Why did we choose Salience Learning as our name?

Our name therefore has a dual meaning. 

First, it serves as a constant reminder that any learning we create must stay true to the principles and theories of the science of learning.  Think of it like applied academia. Practical application built on a foundation of science and evidence. 

Second, we want to stand out.  Specifically, we want to be known for applying the science of learning to the business of science to solve the life science industry’s most challenging business problems.