5 Ways Modern Learners Learn: A Checklist for Growing Knowledge and Shifting Behavior

We are experiencing a learning revolution. The broad use of technology across generations means that new possibilities exist for learning and change for every age group and generation. There are three significant shifts taking place that fuel this learning revolution (other trends identified by Deloitte here)

  • When knowledge changes so quickly and is so readily available, curiosity and nimbleness are among the most prized traits of leaders and employees today. Organizations must provide learning resources for the nimble and curious.
  • The largest generation alive today, the Millennial Generation, is entering the workforce with a strong desire to learn and to seize opportunities for advancement. They prize training and opportunity over money – really!


  • The pervasive availability and use of technology creates new possibilities for “just in time” learning that is not confined to a classroom or virtual environment.

The new rules of adult learning are grounded in the same foundational principles of androdgyny made famous by the educator Albert Knowles. However, the context in which these principles apply have shifted drastically. We must now think of learning in new ways to meet the expectations and curiosities of a new generation of learners. Here I have listed ways that modern learners learn I suggest that this be the start of a checklist that I feel are most important for learning managers and leaders of all organizations for their learning and formation programs:

Modern learners learn most what they feel the most.

Our brains retain most easily what stimulates our senses such as near-death experiences, incredible food, the loss of a loved one, an embarrassing failure, or a surprise visit. Learning happens when stories, classroom experiences, or virtual simulations create memorable feelings that connect to the content of what is being learned. That is nearly impossible to do with a lecture or Power Point, and a lot more possible to do with film, role play, Improv and storytelling.

Begin with a bang, not a whimper. The opening and closing learning moments must involve something stimulating, inspiring or engaging to receive learner buy-in. How many of you have attended learning sessions that begin with opening comments from executives or management are a drain on the energy of the room? These are the very definition of a whimper or dud that can transform any excitement that existed prior to the beginning of the session or class into boredom or dread.  Instead, sweep the learner into an experience. Begin with music, a rousing video that inspires, a story that invokes feelings, or a fun and collaborative icebreaker. Learners must know that something different and important is happening, or else you’ve already lost them for what follows.

Classes or training must be coupled with real world learning experiences, simulations, failures or coaching where the learner feels that the knowledge is connected to their every day challenges. Knowledge gained from lectures, presentations, and virtual training will be forgotten within days if it is not connected to simulations, life or operational experiences within 24-48 hours after the first exposure. We retain what our brains and experiences tell us that we need to know, so learning designers and managers must ensure that learning and experiences are closely connected and aligned.

Failure, of course, is the best teacher because learners feel it so much more. But should we create situations where learners can fail? Sure. Airlines do it for pilots in the simulator all the time because it is better to fail in a safe environment than when in a real crisis situation in the sky. The safe experience of failure can be simulated by learning contexts that are appropriate to the learning objective and to the context of the failure. Failure in a game or play may be appropriate in group or public settings if it is lighthearted and a shared experience, but never if it going to shame or embarrass someone in front of their peers. Failure in most cases should be stimulated in private or safe environments, and most often virtually or online where nothing is at stake except the learner’s own ego and confidence.

Modern learners want to learn and grow, but the learning event has to feel relevant to them.

As shown above, one of the hallmarks of Gen Y employees is that they want to learn, and they rewards organizations that make it possible with their loyalty and hard work. That does not necessarily mean that they are going to be thrilled when they are asked to attend training sessions. Several things can diminish the desire of the Millennial to learn: the learning event is not relevant to their lives or work, if they do not see it as realistic to their experience, or if it is not aligned with other communications employees are receiving from the organization. From the outset, modern learners have to understand the WIFM (what’s in it for me?).

How do those who manage HR or learning for an organization know the topics that will most interest the self-directed learner? Top down learning approaches don’t work with Millennial learners (neither will grabbing them out of the operation 5 minutes before training begins without first getting their buy-in on why it is important). When something goes wrong, learners automatically want to know how to avoid it or improve it. Those who manage and strategize learning for the organization must spend time in the operation, learning the stories of what situations arise with employees, what triggers failure, and what best practices bring success. Learning experiences can address these situations that many employees encounter, and the training will feel authentic to their experience.

Most importantly, learning designers must move from a priori assumptions about what learners need to know to data-driven direction about what learners most need to know. The use of Big Data about employee challenges and employee development, as well as learner or peer feedback, assessments, journey maps and performance reviews can be used to identify topics the learner feels are most relevant to them and then customize the learning to them as individuals. Tin Can API makes possible some of these real work related learning opportunities through data-driven design.

In a study of over 20,000 learners, Towards Maturity found 82 percent of people said they want to learn at their own pace and 44 percent learn for work during evenings and weekends. Personalization and customization are the single most important trends in workplace learning.

Learning when I need to know is always more impactful than learning when you scheduled me to know. 

“Just in time training” is more impactful than “In case you ever need to know” training. Whether it is in the corporate classroom, the workshop or Sunday School, so much of our learning for the last two centuries in North America has been confined to the classroom, workshop, conference room or a scheduled GoToMeeting room. Trainers and speakers traveled for miles for scheduled meetings or sessions. But all of this learning was for “in case you need to know” scenarios. The learning environments now available to us through mobile and virtual, learning is liberated from space and time requirements. Now learning can be on the go, whenever and wherever the learner feels that they need it. Mobile apps, audible books, podcasts, and Youtube channels are just a few examples of learning that are available anywhere there is an Internet connection.

Best in class experts in almost every field are now available online, and many for free, through lectures and videos on Youtube, MOOCs, SPOC (Small Private Online Course), and podcasts. Why wait for an expert or speaker to come to you, when learners can access this material online already? Expose learners to world class experts through video in pre-training contexts, and then use training time slots for simulations and applications of knowledge gained from the pre-viewing or pre-reading.This opportunity is not confined to external experts either. Film the best practitioners and most successful employees in your organization about their moments of success, their failures, and their best practices. Place these stories online for employee access to teach culture or to share high return practices. For more on the trend away from corporate-designed learning to learner-driven learning architecture, see this report from Deloitte.

Modern learners acquire knowledge and shift behaviors more through social learning than from individual knowledge acquisition.

It is widely known that the 70:20:10 rule applies: 70% of what we know comes from real life or on-the-job experiences, 20% of development comes from social learning through coaching, management and feedback, and 10% of formation comes from lectures, trainings or presentations. Yet, most organizations spend most of their energy and resources on the 10% and not on the 70 or 20. What if we shifted those resources towards more collaborative learning, more simulations, more mentoring and more coaching? Furthermore, crowd sourced learning offers new potential for social learning as online tools, apps and courses allow for peer contributions and development.

A recent report from the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) found that 53 percent of organizations plan to focus more on collaborative learning in 2015-16.

Collaborative learning can take place in classrooms, simulations or in the virtual space through discussion boards. But other possibilities exist. ‘Gameplay’ can make learning highly effective through the use of rewards and point scoring that make learning addictive and fun. Social networks, discussion groups and comment boards are motivational learning environments for learners to share their insights and growth.

Modern learners remember most what they learn in small chunks of information sustained over time.

Miniature, reconfigurable, and highly useable training “bites” are the most sought after forms of training in many large corporations today. Managers and employees have grown weary of 4-8 hour trainings that remove employees from their daily work for sustained periods, and then managers observe that there has been so little recall of information from that investment. The generational change also is driving this evolution in training. Research has shown that the Millennial Generation has an average attention span of 8 minutes.

We know that adult learners need a shift in activity every 10 minutes, and learn best in mini snippets of 30-45 minutes at one setting. Even 5-10 minute snackable modules embedded into the daily work of the learner have been shown to be more durable than longer training sessions because they are digested in small amounts, and they can be repeated as necessary. The training company MindGym specializes in the creation of 45 minute training modules delivered in high impact chunks over a course of weeks or months within an organization. At SGEi, we have used 10 minute iPad training modules with embedded role play videos to train employees at luxury car dealerships on hospitality behaviors.  If learners can be reminded of that information within 24 hours, and then engage it again within 1 month, and then again in 6 months, this is the optimal exposure for optimal learning. Of course, that exposure can be through all variety of channels such as the classroom, coaching, webinars, online modules, and apps. In the future, less is more — not just because it is operationally more tenable, but because it fits the cognitive architecture of how we learn and execute based on what we know.

The future looks exciting and bright for learning within the organization. The learners are ready, and the platforms are more cost effective, accessible and engaging than ever. The organizations that understand this and act on it now will find themselves on the cutting edge of innovation and market advantage. There has never been a time when learning is more critical to organizational success than now, and we are a critical time when tremendous shifts are necessarily and possible.

For more on this topic, see this op-ed by David Brooks in the NYT.


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