June 3, 2024

Team Session or Team Coaching? The counterintuitive neuroscience of learning that lasts

Team Development

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In recent years, growing demands for change and innovation have spurred investments in team and leadership development, with healthcare organizations pouring resources into all sorts of learning initiatives. At the same time, emerging neuroscience research reveals many of our long-held assumptions about how humans learn are false. 

I was reminded of this recently, having completed two different team engagements as a healthcare leadership coach: one team session and one team coaching. Put simply, the main difference between the two is the duration: sessions are typically a one-and-done event, while coaching involves multiple sessions over time, alternating group and individual coaching.

Both formats are beneficial, and both teams I worked with rated their experience as 10/10. But when we look at outcomes months or years down the line, one format is a clear winner. 

One-time hit vs spaced repetition

For humans to learn, neural connections have to change. This takes time. At MEDI Leadership, we often refer to this process as “turning theory into muscle memory,” creating conditions so that new behaviors become as second-nature as your “autopilot” routine reactions.

Pressed for budget and time, it’s understandable that some organizations opt for shorter training programs, especially when they’re looking for short-term change instead of long-term transformation. 

Specifically, we’ve seen teams benefit from one-hit sessions in two scenarios: 

  • New teams: When people are just starting to know each other, the session creates a space for them to connect in a different way, and start building trusted relationships and awareness of their various behavioral styles.
  • When the options are “one or none” for whatever reason: Perhaps the organization can’t commit the time or funding required for longer-term coaching. In that case, one session is better than none.

For that one session to be successful, it is critical that both the leader and team members are highly engaged not only during the session, but willing to do the ongoing work to live out whatever team behavioral norms and commitments are established in that session. They need to hold themselves accountable to ongoing integrity. That’s harder than it sounds.

As a coach, it’s hard to do one session. Like cramming before a test and forgetting the information shortly after, it’s much harder for learners to process and retain information that’s jammed into a single event.

That’s not just my opinion as a coach. Rather, those observations are consistent with a growing body of research. “Our ability to absorb new ideas is not dissimilar to our capacity to absorb food: there are physical limits to the digestion to both,” say researchers.

The neuroscience of learning

What’s a science-backed approach to learning, then? Learning, at its core, means retrieving information easily. Unlike those cramming sessions before an exam in our school days, science tells us it is far better to break up learning over time.

Researchers recommend a four-part model for making learning stick: Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing — AGES, for short. (The insights covered below come from that research and from recent updates to the model.)

💡 Attention

For the hippocampus to activate sufficiently for learning to occur, the learner needs to be paying full attention. Even small levels of distraction hinder this process, so the first foundational idea for learning is ensuring undivided attention.

At the same time, humans can only pay full attention for 20 minutes at a time. After that, the brain loses focus and attention needs to be recaptured. After 15-20 minutes of sustained attention, a coach or trainer can either pause to let learners mentally refresh or introduce something new, such as a chance for learners to focus inward, move their bodies, ask questions, change learning format, and so on.

💡 Generation

Memories aren’t like documents we create once and then store in computers or file folders. Instead, we grow our memories. According to AGES research, “memories are made up of vast webs of data across the brain all linked together.” The more associations connected to a memory, the thicker that web is, and the easier it is to access that memory later.

Once sufficient attention has been paid to a learning task, one key element increases the likelihood of memory generation: creating ownership of the content. As researchers explain it, ownership occurs when an individual “is motivated to understand, contextualize, retain and apply knowledge in their own way. The learner should be encouraged to take in the presented information and personalize it by transforming it in a way that is meaningful for them.”

Insights, in particular — those eureka moments when the unconscious brain solves a problem — might be the most valuable form of memory generation. Thankfully, there’s a fairly reliable process to lead a person to an insight: Start with the awareness of an impasse. Next, help the learner explore solutions. Finally, allow quiet time for internal reflection so the weaker, less-frequently used neural signals are activated and can surface novel ideas.

💡 Emotions

Emotion is one of the more important regulators of learning and memory formation. Its impact is two-fold: First, emotional content can help grab and focus attention. Second, it activates the amygdala to increase the effectiveness of encoding the information in the brain. Positive emotions are most effective, as negative ones reduce creativity and innovation. 

Of course, arousing emotions in a learning context can be tricky. Coaches can invoke positive emotions by using the SCARF model, short for “Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.” When used effectively, the SCARF model can help to increase people’s sense of those elements.

An increase in a sense of Relatedness, for example, can come from connecting deeply with their peers, triggering an increase in dopamine neurotransmission.

💡 Spacing

Having some space between learning and review sessions is the most counterintuitive but perhaps most important of the four learning principles. Rest is a necessary “digestion time” for the brain to reorganize, distribute and consolidate the information so it can become long-term memory.

One study found that 90% of participants had better performance after spacing than cramming. That’s because our prefrontal cortex can only process 3-7 information chunks at one time, and it takes time to form new synaptic connections. If the synapse is disturbed before it “sets,” the memory is lost. 

Some spacing (as in just a few minutes) is better than none, but the ideal minimal gap is one that includes sleep. “Sleep does wonders [for long-term retention], and it requires no cost, effort, or additional total time devoted to learning sessions,” write AGES researchers.

Transforming teams by working with, not against, human biology

It’s hard enough for one person to change behaviors and sustain those changes, let alone an entire team of individuals, each with their own hangups, habits, agendas and styles. Making learning last requires time and maintenance. You can give your teams the best chance to learn and sustain new behaviors by working with their biology, versus attempting to force the complex transformations of teams against our natural neurological limitations.

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About the author

Kristy Kainrath, MBA, PCC

Kristy Kainrath, MBA, PCC is a strategic thinker known for her passion in helping others be their best selves through awareness and purpose.

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