Looking inside – Skillsoft and MIT launch new research initiative into the science of learning.

July 13, 2017 | Activate Learning, Reskill Your Workforce | 4 min read

By Heide Abelli and Mark Onisk

Skillsoft and MIT launch new research initiative into the science of learning

Have you ever wondered what makes one instructional video interesting and another not so much? Anecdotally, we might chalk this up to the “interest factor” to the presentation capabilities of the instructor, or the nature of the subject matter or perhaps even the length of the video.

Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain, if learners find interest in a video, they are more likely to take something from it and apply it on the job. For this reason, it’s critical that we, as learning and development professionals, understand what makes instructional content interesting.

As the leading global provider of eLearning, this naturally intrigues us. And we believe that as leaders in our industry, we must continue to understand why (and how) the brain processes and retains information to improve performance. In short, what key factors must we consider to ensure that learning “sticks”?

An understanding of retention and application continues to be one of the greatest challenges facing the industry today. This is why we partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Office of Digital Learning and Accenture to embark on an extensive research initiative that will delve into the science of learning to precisely determine what instructional strategies stimulate learner engagement and interest.

Some of the planned experiments for the research study include:

  • Assessing the impact of scenario-based versus instructor-led video content on recall.
  • Analyzing the impact of presenting material to the learner in advance of the video, such as a preview or outline of the content, or a pre-assessment so the learner understands the gap in their knowledge
  • Reviewing the impact of interpolated testing or quizzes within the videos to see how it influences interest and retention.
  • We also plan to look at the impact of having the learner author their own “relevance statement” or WIIFM before watching the video, to determine if this association with their everyday life has a meaningful influence on retention. Some studies suggest that the mere act of writing this paragraph increases a learner’s intrinsic interest in the course content and improves learning outcomes. Again, we seek to validate this through our research.
  • Finally, we want to assess the learner’s mindset (growth/grit) to understand whether people with a growth mindset and more “grit” learn regardless of the course video quality or if more interesting videos are truly the deciding factor.

Phase one of our research will involve a virtual pilot and phase two will involve a simultaneous fMRI-EEG experiment. We plan to run fMRI-EEG readings within a laboratory setting at MIT to visibly monitor and measure the activity within the brain under each experiment.

As background, the bulk of learning research is done using fMRI technology identifies where cognitive processes are taking place in the brain and how different brain parts are connected, whereas EEG sees the overall state of regions of the brain with precise timing. These state-of-the-art technologies will provide definitive insight on how our brains process video content.

In other words, through the project we will determine whether good learners have a fundamentally different neural network as seen in fMRI and if so, whether that translates to different neural states as seen in EEG. Once fMRI learning research is translated into EEG in the laboratory setting, we will then be able to apply EEG to real employees and assess learning in a real work environment.

Some of the questions that we hope to answer in the fMRI and EEG phase of the project include the following:

  • Do people who learn better from videos have fundamentally different neural network connectivity?
  • Do people with growth mindset have a different neural network than those with fixed mindset?
  • Do the interest factors in video-based courses improve employees’ focus and decrease mind wandering as measured by fMRI & EEG?
  • Are there age differences in focus/mind wandering based on the interest factor in the video course as measured by fMRI & EEG?

As you might imagine this is very exciting for Skillsoft and for our customers. Extensive background research revealed that none of this has been explored using scientifically rigorous research methods, so there is massive potential to produce incredibly vital research in the field of brain science as it relates to the use of video-based courses for corporate learning.

UPDATE: Review the “Neuroscience Research Correlates a Growth Mindset and the Capacity to Learn New Skills” blog for additional insights and findings about Phase 1.

UPDATED BLOG POST: June 10, 2019: The Evidence for Scenario-Based Training for Interpersonal Skills - Skillsoft Completes its Research with MIT and Accenture

Link to public announcement of research effort on MIT’s website: http://mitili.mit.edu/news/building-scientific-understanding-workplace-learning

Heide Abelli is the SVP of Content Product Management at Skillsoft and Mark Onisk is the SVP of Books at Skillsoft.