Psychology / Columns / Training Strategies

TRAINING STRATEGIES: The battle for attention

August 5, 2010
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We have two brains in our head: the analytical, rational left hemisphere, and the intuitive, subjective right hemisphere. Both are essential to safety management because the primary reason for any solid training program is to develop high-functioning, “whole-brain” employees.

Distractions, multi-tasking & increased risk

Our early ancestors had one mind. Psychologists call it a “reactive” mind that only dealt in higher thought processes when presented with a problem. Often referred to as the reptilian brain, it didn't plan for the future or imagine how to improve things like a hut, a tool or ways to escape a predator. It only reacted to situations that happened immediately.

Anthropology suggests a sudden improvement occurred when the human brain decided to double its efforts in thought processing.

Now, although modern humans technically have one brain, each half has the ability to act independently of the other. The formation of the neocortex, which sits at the top of the brain over both hemispheres, is the key. It added three times to the weight and mass of the human brain and has been the subject of countless research studies with some exciting conclusions.

Recent studies inform us that the human nervous system, led by the brain, can process 100 bits of information per second. Research has clocked the average number of bits per second required to listen to someone speak at 60 bits per seconds. This would explain why we can’t hear two people speak at once.

Armed with this new scientific data, we can conclude that barriers to knowledge have more to do with the limits of processing speed and less to do with intelligence (whatever that is). In other words, distractions that we allow to sap our processing speed prevent our accumulation and comprehension of information. The phrase, “the lights are on but no one is home,” meant to describe someone we deem as “dimwitted,” should actually be amended to state: “The lights are on, the TV is blasting, the popcorn is popping, the baby is crying,” and so on.

In addition to our exposure to numerous distractions, our growing skills at multi-tasking can be blamed for our cranial overload. Technology has given us tools that allow us to accomplish (or destroy) several things at once. While you’re downloading the bank statement, you’re Googling for a Dim Sum restaurant with one hand and pouring your root beer with the other. Trouble is, you risk knocking over the root beer or searching for Sumo wrestlers by mistake. Transfer this risk to the safety arena, and you can start to see why slips, trips and over-exertion remain the most frequent OSHA recordable incidents.

E-learning improves attention & retention

Perhaps the single most effective innovation of education in the past 25 years is the rise of computer-based e-learning. With the elimination of distractions and the ability to choose the time, place and context of your study, e-learning is a solo experience that accommodates the three distinct learning styles: auditory, visual and kinesthetic.

In addition, synchronous e-learning is self-paced. Advanced learners can speed through or bypass redundant instruction while novices move at their own pace through the content, eliminating frustration with themselves, their fellow learners, and the course material. Other unique opportunities created by the advent and development of e-learning are more efficient training of a globally dispersed audience and reduced publishing and distribution costs as Internet-based training becomes a standard.

Because the human brain seems to need kinesthetic, auditory and visual input to fully comprehend, nothing can replace the hands-on training required for the proper operation and use of equipment. But to understand conceptual topics like procedures, policies, physics and the big picture, e-learning is a proven method for enhancing retention.

With this in mind, here are five tips to give your training programs a boost:
  1. Make your training as much about engagement as it is about compliance.
  2. Consider the three learning methods: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.
  3. Make training a component of a comprehensive culture management system.
  4. Customize your training for maximum relevance rather than merely using off-the shelf course material.
  5. Expand the availability of training to take place at home, not just at work.


Learning management systems

Best practices in safety begin with engagement-based safety, not behavior- based safety. The engagement of employees is really a battle for their attention, cooperation and motivation. A solid safety culture management system installed at a facility goes a long way toward reporting, recording and rewarding employees for their engagement as measured by discretionary effort and involvement.

An integral component of your system should be a robust, online learning management system (LMS) that provides for customized OSHA and MSHA training. Incentives are an important aspect of this approach, and an e-learning program gives employees the opportunity to earn points that are automatically placed in personal accounts as they successfully complete the course material. These points can then be redeemed for iPods, jackets, basketballs or any other incentives that will be effective. When combined with a comprehensive culture-management system, e-learning costs are absorbed into the program, making it a more budget-friendly investment in the development of your workers.

Healthy cultures are distinguished by the variety of ways in which they encourage employees to become involved. Your training plans should be robust enough to accommodate your employees varied learning styles and should include incentives to boost engagement and excitement. After all, we’re talking about investing in the development of a safe, systems-thinking team member.

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