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About research at Cambridge. Behavioral skills learning is not mediated by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain, but rather by the behavioral skills learning system.
I. INTRODUCTION: CHANGES IN COGNITIVE FUNCTION IN HUMAN AGING
Whereas the cognitive skills learning system recruits the prefrontal cortex and relies critically on working memory and executive attention, the behavioral skills learning system recruits the basal ganglia, a subcortical brain structure that does not rely on working memory and executive attention for learning. Rather, the basal ganglia learn behaviors gradually and incrementally via dopamine-mediated error-correction learning. The basal ganglia links sensory representations with motor actions. When the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real time — within hundreds of milliseconds — by feedback that rewards the behavior, dopamine is released, and that behavior will be incrementally more likely to occur the next time the learner is in the same context.
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On the other hand, when the learner generates a behavior that is followed in real time by feedback that punishes the behavior, dopamine is not released, and that behavior will be incrementally less likely to occur the next time the learner is in the same context. Situational awareness involves understanding how information, events and actions around us impact our current situation and how changes might impact the future. Situational awareness relies on emotional learning.
Situational awareness and emotional learning are about nuance, but nuance that is critical to success. Whereas one can have all of the facts and figures available and can have a strong behavioral repertoire, in the end they must extract the appropriate information and engage the appropriate behavior in each distinct situation. The critical brain regions are the amygdala and other limbic structures. The detailed processing characteristics of this system are less understood than the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems, but emotional learning is at the heart of situational awareness as emotional processing strongly affects both cognitive and behavioral skills learning.
Microlearning is highly effective for hard skills training because microlearning techniques map optimally onto the processing characteristics of the cognitive skills learning system and the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus that make up this system. In other words, it is the processing characteristics of these brain systems that drive the success of microlearning, not the other way around.
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As shown in the figure below, microlearning is effective at engaging the cognitive skills learning system. The question is whether microlearning is also effective at engaging the behavioral and emotional learning systems in the brain.
Behavioral skills learning is optimized when the learner trains on multiple behaviors across multiple settings. Ideally, the learner has no idea what is coming next. For example, executive leadership training on a routine situation such as a weekly team meeting should be followed by a non-routine situation in which an angry client is on the phone and the leader has only a few minutes to de-escalate the situation. It is the randomness and uncertainty about what is coming next that enhances generalization, transfer and long-run behavior change.
Notice that training on a broad range of situations with no prior warning is exactly the approach to take to train situational awareness and to effectively engage emotional learning centers in the brain. It also teaches them the cues that they need to read to improve their ability to predict the future. You also want to incorporate a broad set of environmental contexts. Although the context is not central to the skill to be trained, including a broad range of contexts leads to more robust behavior change and is at the heart of situational awareness.
For example, during executive leadership training on how to conduct effective performance reviews, it would be ideal for the office setting to change across scenarios from modern to retro to minimalist.
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Similarly, it is best to practice with a range of employees who differ in age, gender and ethnicity. The broader based the training, the better. Microlearning is highly effective at engaging the cognitive skills learning system in the brain and training hard skills.