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Learning That CLICS

June 09, 2022 Learning and Development
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

For at least the last decade, the learning industry has focused significant energy and investment on technology, looking for ways to shift learning from the traditional classroom to more personalized, mobile, and on-demand delivery channels. Technology platforms, smartphones and robust apps have enabled major shifts in how we’ve begun to reimagine work. . . . As important as technological advances have been and continue to be, the next revolution in learning is turning inward to our own biology — the preferences, constraints, and needs of human psychology and the brain. The fields of social psychology and neuroscience have exploded over the last 20 years, yet much of the research has remained within the walls of academia and medicine. This research has given us a deeper understanding of how our brains register, process, encode, and recall information — the very essence of learning.


Our epiphany is this:

  • Change continues to rapidly accelerate, with information growing exponentially.
  • Learning professionals live at the heart of individual and organizational transformations.
  • No matter how clever the technology, how talented the instructional designer, or how adaptive the facilitator, our profession can increase its impact if we factor in how the human brain learns.

So begins, "Learning that CLICS: Using Behavioral Science for Effective Learning Design," my recently published book that applies behavioral science to the profession of learning. My co-authors, Mind Gym's Chief Behavioral Science Officer Janet Ahn and Jon Thompson, director of learning experience and innovation at The Coca-Cola Company, and I wrote the book for learning professionals who aspire to get better at their craft. I recently spoke with Janet and Jon to hear in their own words why this book is meaningful to them.

Mary Slaughter: Jon, why did you want to write this book?

Jon Thompson
Jon Thompson: I’ve been working in the learning and development field for over 25 years, and along the way I’ve had my share of successes and shortfalls. Early in my career, I remember feeling excited to create new programs and put my instructional design skills to work. Decades later, I am less motivated by just creating learning solutions and more motivated by solving problems. That typically means getting adults to change the way they think or behave — which isn’t easy.

Mary: Who would benefit from reading our work?

Jon: This book is not just for instructional designers. If you’re involved in making investment decisions about learning and development, or you’re responsible for leading organizations where behaviors need to change, our book will speak to you. As a side benefit, if you have kids in school, you’ll also learn concepts that will help you provide more effective coaching to them.

Mary: What does CLICS stand for?

Jon: CLICS is an acronym for a framework of behavioral science principles that describe how learning actually happens. It stands for Capacity, Layering, Intrinsic enablers, Coherence and Social connections. These five domains are grounded in research and provide a brain-friendly roadmap for the design and development of effective learning. I’m not the scientist on the team, but I can share the definitions:

  • Capacity: The volume of information competing for the learner’s working memory.
  • Layering: The optimal framing, structuring, sequencing, and repetition of concepts to ensure deep learning.
  • Intrinsic enablers: The motivating conditions required to enhance intrinsic motivation, to generate personal relevance and foster lasting learning.
  • Coherence: The cognitive ease with which information fits together and amplifies related ideas.
  • Social connections: The interpersonal support structure (physical, emotional, and psychological) necessary for optimal learning.

Mary: From a practitioner’s perspective, why is starting with the behavioral science so important to learning analysis?

Jon: For years the learning profession has experimented with different approaches, and through trial and error, has created many best practices. Now we can, and should, apply behavioral science research to avoid inaccurate assumptions and to be more predictive about behavior change. There’s also the benefit of being more data-driven with stakeholders who sometimes suggest solutions that will likely have a low probability of success. It's ineffective to fight our biology. Instead, we should apply what we know about how learning actually happens in the brain when developing learning solutions.

Mary: What did you like the most (and the least) about writing with two co-authors?

Jon: Writing with you and Janet was great. The old saying of “you go faster alone but further together” definitely applies here. I’m so proud we took the plunge and made the commitment to write our book. We learned from each other, sometimes frustrated one another, but honestly we always had each other’s backs. COVID-19 actually helped us find the time for the work, and we looked forward to being with each other virtually during those long periods of isolation.

Mary: What is your hope for our readers?

Jon: Our goal from the beginning was to produce something very practical that practitioners could immediately use. The theory is nice, but the application is really the point. I love it when others share how helpful the framework is and that it changes how they think about their profession, as well as their ability to drive great learning. I’m excited about the future of where learning science is heading. 

Janet Ahn, Chief Behavioral Science Officer at Mind Gym

Janet Ahn, professor of psychology at William Paterson University

Three guiding principles underpin the CLICS framework: how the brain works, how it learns, and how it applies.

How the brain works

The first step is understanding how our brains help us remember information. How does the brain process events, record them as memories and subsequently retrieve them when relevant? Understanding the mechanism by which the brain absorbs information should guide our decisions on how to optimize learning.

How the brain learns

Learning is a permanent change in behavior or knowledge as a result from prior experience.

In its most basic form, learning occurs when our mind automatically links or associates two events together. Knowing how the brain puts two and two together informs how best to layer, sequence, and structure how new information will be presented. It also sheds light on how and when to repeat information in order to promote learning.

How the brain applies

How does the brain socialize the information it has registered, processed, retained and learned? It depends on how the brain is motivated — intrinsically (internal factors) or extrinsically (external factors). Motivation is defined as the needs or wants that direct our behavior towards a goal, including learning. Even social norms can effectively shape behaviors and reinforce learning patterns.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.


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