MYTH-BUSTING LEARNING: Conversations with Behavioral Scientist and Learning & Development Expert Stella Collins

It’s time for another brain-tingling webinar with Chad and Jason. In this installment, the guys bust some learning myths with the help of learning specialist Stella Collins. Although both Chad and Jason, Habitu8’s founders, are in Los Angeles, they’re nowhere near each other because it’s LA. Stella is joining the call from a beautiful city in Northern Spain called Burgás, and we’re all super jealous.

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This webinar was inspired by Chad’s fascination with the brain as a learning machine and all the different ways that it works. We’re always looking for more effective ways to bring cybersecurity learning to the masses, and this is where Stella’s expertise on psychology and neuroscience comes in!

Who Is Stella?

Stella Collins is a learning specialist, psychologist, and MSc in human communication who loves taking technical neuroscience and psychology and loves taking technical neuroscience and psychology lingo and translating it for people in the training world.

Although she got her start in psychology, she accidentally found herself in the IT world. She worked as a programmer (and loved it because it was all about language), then worked in IT technical support (and loved it because it was problem solving). She brought her love of and experience with psychology back into the fold as an IT training manager and now applies neuroscience and psychology to training and learning in the most unsexy of industries.

Speaking of, before the webinar goes all-in, let’s define the words training and learning, which are tossed around a lot, just to make sure we’ll all on the same page. Stella’s take:

  • Training: This is what the training community does, such as creating learning programs, events, training materials, and so on.
  • Learning: This is what the people receiving the training do in order to change habits or improve skills.

Now let’s bust some myths.

The Myth of Learning Skills vs. Learning Knowledge

Skills are not the same thing as knowledge, readers. Here is how Stella separates skill acquisition from knowledge acquisition:

  • Learning knowledge: This is about acquiring information and facts.
  • Learning skills: This is when you change or acquire a new behavior based on knowledge.

In short, Chad says, you know what swimming is (knowledge), but you can’t learn to swim (skills) by attending a deep-dive lecture on swimming or watching a video of other people swimming—you learn by doing. Eventually, Stella says, those learned skills become unconscious skills. She adds that the more you learn, the more you realize there actually is to learn.

Teaching Skills vs. Teaching Knowledge

Jason brings up the elephant in the room: Are we teaching skills or teaching knowledge? Because from the looks of things, security awareness training should be about teaching skills, not knowledge.

In Chad’s experience, most people are aware of security risks, but they don’t know why it’s important and how to actually behave the right way about them. The added layer, Stella says, is that even if people are aware, they’re probably fearful of making mistakes and suffering the consequences.

Throw multitasking and rapid response 24/7/365 expectations on top of it all, and people end up in a loop of the wrong behaviors. For the longest time, Jason says, security awareness training was trying to teach knowledge; people knew what risk was, but they didn’t have the skill to identify those risks.

And if you think your baby boomers are the biggest risk, think again. Baby boomers, Chad and Stella discuss, are actually a lower risk; they didn’t grow up in a digital, computer-run world, so they’re more skeptical about strange software and unfamiliar links. Millennials and Gen Y trust the digital ecosystem, so they’re more likely to assume something is safe when it really isn’t.

The Myth of Micro-Learning

Learning in small bursts is an attractive approach: Rather than a three-week training course, you get small nuggets of training on the regular. But does it actually work?

According to Stella, most of the time, micro-learning isn’t really learning because you’re just accessing information, whereas true learning takes time—time for information to go from short-term memory to long-term memory to muscle memory. And you’ve got to have solid follow-up to reinforce the learning.

In response, Chad poses this question: Do we need to support learning? Or do we need to support behavior? The group gets into an interesting discussion here about the “nudge idea” and how the brain responds. For example, Jason has always felt like security awareness posters don’t work, because if they’re in the same place every single day forever, people stop seeing them.

But that’s how our brains are evolutionarily designed, Stella says. If something looks the same every day, we stop seeing it because it’s not a threat!

Chad throws his thoughts in the ring, saying that if the brain didn’t work that way, life would be overwhelming. “The brain was designed to throw information away,” he says. In fact, Stella says, citing Dr. Julia Shaw, forgetting is vital for our brains—if we can’t forget, we can’t remember.

What we need to do, Stella says, is stop arming people with more information and, instead, get curious about what prevents and distracts people from adopting the right behaviors. Then, we need to provide training based on those answers.

The Myth of Training in One Go

If your neurons are firing on all cylinders, you might need a break, and this is the magic of spaced repetition. Our neurons are nonstop workaholics, but they need a break—otherwise, they can’t continuously fire.

So, if you’re trying to learn something, you’ve got to learn it, be exposed to it, and then take a break so your neurons can rebuild their connections. The following process encourages recall, which wakes up the parts of the brain that make the connections between information.

  1. Learn about something.
  2. Take a break and do something unrelated (e.g., color, juggling).
  3. Go back to the info and approach it with prompts, quiz-like questions, or gaps in the info so your brain has to recall the information.
  4. Take another break and do something unrelated.
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 as much as need until you’re set.

The idea behind leaving gaps in the information or asking someone to ask you questions about it rather than a straight review is that these methods encourage recall rather than recognition. Recognition doesn’t create behavior change or skill development, but recall does.

Also, don’t discount testing! Most of the time, tests help people connect, recall, and make sense of concepts and information. Chad chimes in with a reminder anyone who grew up in the U.S. can relate to: We’ve all been traumatized in the U.S. by the educational system. We freeze up when we hear a test is coming.

We need a mindset shift, Stella says. Testing helps learning, but only if doesn’t carry negative consequences.

The Myth of Learning Styles

We all know that person, the one who says “I’m a visual learner” or “I’m an auditory learner” or “I’m just not a learner at all.” The truth is, Stella says, there is not any evidence to show that there is one better way of learning across the board. What’s more, there really aren’t “learning styles”—there are just ways in which different people have found they learn certain topics, concepts, or information better.

For example, if you’re programming a computer or learning to ride a bike, you don’t need to watch a ton of videos about it; you need to dive in and just do it. What you’re learning, she says, is what makes a certain modality more or less effective.

That said, Stella shares a few truths about learning across the board:

  • Emotions make learning much stickier.
  • Repetition is always effective.
  • Our brains love visual stimuli.
  • Social elements reinforce learning.

On the last point, Chad says that bringing training into intra-office communications such as Slack or Workplace for Facebook is a great way to bolster the social element of training.

Books to Read

Stella didn’t bust out her favorite studies and research for this webinar because, she says, for every study that says one thing, there’s another study that says something completely different. Just make sure if you’re applying neuroscience or psychology principles to your security awareness training that you do your due diligence on studies about what works and what doesn’t.

Here are some reads to get you started:

  • Neuroscience for Learning and Development by Stella Collins covers the things she discusses in our webinar and much more.
  • Brain Rules by John Medina offers a really practical look at how your brain works in different environments—not just learning environments.
  • Brain Matters by Margie Meacham is a really easy-to-read look at how to help people learn based on neuroscience/psychology.

Are your neurons overloaded? Take a break, come back, and let’s do this all over again. Then head over to our free videos and see how we’re taking all of this juicy brain talk and translating it into security awareness training that works. If this just piqued your interest then watch the full webinar below!