Imagine you’ve been given a challenging responsibility. It could be crafting the perfect sales pitch for a potential client. Or creating the workflow for the next big project. Or finding just the right angle for your next press release.
Whatever it is, you start out a little uncertain. You begin sketching things out in your mind but the destination is unclear. And then, suddenly, it all comes into focus. A light bulb turns on. You know exactly what to do.
These moments of insight are incredibly valuable – and often rare to come by. But these little breakthroughs can make the difference between success and failure in the workplace. So, is there a way to help your learners have these precious “aha!” moments when they need them most?
Researchers from Ohio State University created a study where they could observe people during a moment of what they called “epiphany learning.”
They created an online strategy game where participants would play against an unseen opponent. The game essentially involved choosing a number between 0 and 10. The number would be compared to the opponent’s choice and a winner would be declared. The correct approach was a bit complex to figure out, but unbeknownst to the participants there was an optimal strategy – choosing zero. Zero was always the best choice.
The researchers tracked participants’ eye movements and pupil dilation in order to capture the “aha” moment when a participant realized the power of zero. 42 percent of participants had the epiphany and committed to choosing zero for the remainder of the experiment.
They found specific differences between the epiphany learners and the others. First, before the epiphany, they began staring at the zero more than any other option, which allowed the researchers to predict the epiphany before it happened. Then they stopped paying attention to what their opponent was choosing and focused on the results of their own strategy. And finally, during and after the epiphany, the participants’ pupils dilated, which is a telltale sign of focus and learning.
There’s, of course, no guarantee that you can help your learners to have more breakthrough realizations when they’re learning something new. But the research provides some insight into how and why they happen. Below are some recommendations based on the research.
Analyze results. In the study, the participants that experienced epiphanies spent much more time between rounds analyzing the results of their choices and trying to find the logic behind what worked and what didn’t.
So consider asking learners similar questions when learning a new skill or approaching a complex challenge. What has worked for similar challenges in the past? Why did it work? What smaller decisions or insights along the way helped you succeed?
And conversely: What hasn’t been successful in the past? Why didn’t it work? What could you do differently this time?
Look internally, not externally. The epiphany learners spent far less time focused on their competitor’s actions. In fact, one of the researchers stated that, “Those who paid more attention to their opponents tended to learn the wrong lesson.”
Therefore, consider conveying the following to your learners: When learning something new, don’t be discouraged if some of your colleagues seem to be picking it up faster. Everyone learns differently and what works for others won’t always work for you. Instead, focus on your strategy or practice habits and how to best improve the learning process for yourself.
Take time with – and away from – the challenge. Insights often happen when you give yourself time to think and space to walk away. The successful participants in the study took the time to review their thought process and look for ways to improve their strategy.
Also, if you find yourself stuck, take a break. Go for a walk, chat with a coworker or move on to another task to get your mind off the challenge. Sometimes this distance from the problem allows you to come to a realization you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Chen, W. J. and Krajbich, I. (2017). Computational modeling of epiphany learning. PNAS. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1618161114
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