Imagine you have to give a presentation to a new client. Or attempt to close a big sale. Or finish a major project with the deadline looming. In pressure situations like these, our best-laid plans can break down.
When stress kicks in, it can overwhelm our mental resources, causing us to abandon learned best practices and opt for shortcuts or the path of least resistance. This is especially dangerous for learners who have just acquired a new skill. Under pressure, learners often resort to their more comfortable bad habits instead of utilizing their newly acquired knowledge.
So how can you help learners remember and act on their learning while under real-world stress? It’s actually quite simple: If you want learners to recall important information, just tell them it’s important.
Researchers at UCLA tested subjects’ performance during moments of “divided attention” where they experienced distractions that could interfere with their memory and ratchet up the stress.
The subjects were split into two groups. Both groups were given a list of words. Each word was given a numerical ranking signifying the word’s importance. For example, words ranked 10 were the most important to remember; 1 was least important.
The first group was given time to study the word list in silence. But for the second group, the “distraction group,” their study was constantly being interrupted by a secondary task – a list of numbers being read aloud. Subjects were told to listen to the numbers while trying to study and respond anytime they heard three odd numbers in a row. This distraction technique was designed to emulate the diminished mental resources people experience while multi-tasking or performing under pressure.
At the end of the study sessions, both groups were tested on their recall of the word list. The researchers found that ranking the words by importance had a big effect – subjects were five times more likely to recall a 10-point word than a 1-point word. In fact, while the distraction group predictably scored worse overall than the first group on recall, the two groups’ recall of the 10-point words were exactly the same.
The study’s findings suggest that accentuating the importance of specific information during the learning process can enhance learners’ recall of said information, even during moments of stress and distraction.
So consider breaking down each learning experience into a few key insights or takeaways that are most important for your learners to walk away with. If appropriate, help learners break the information down by creating a brief summary or step-by-step process for learners to follow while on-the-job. Turning new skills or processes into easily digestible bits can help your people follow through on their learning when the pressure is on.
Most important: Tell your learners why it’s important. Helping your learners understand the reason why new information is valuable and how it will help them succeed will make it more meaningful and help learners prioritize it during the learning process.
Middlebrooks, C. D., et al. (2017). Selectively distracted: Divided attention and memory for important information. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797617702502
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