Millennials do not learn differently, contrary to popular belief

Much has been written about how millennials learn differently, suggesting companies should change the way they manage and train this digital generation. While it’s true millennials have grown up without ever having used a pay phone or typewriter, read a newspaper or waited for a scheduled TV program, does this mean they learn differently?

Many think so.

Brandon Hall research reports millennials “tend to prefer experiential/hands-on learning, working in teams and social networking. They are naturally collaborative and tend to be creative.” Inanother survey, millennials stated they prefer to learn in more collaborative ways and most employers have outdated collaboration practices. Moreover, a 2013 survey of U.S. college students suggests education should not be a one-size-fits-all model for learning because “everyone learns differently.”

Also see: Top 10 employee training mistakes

Sounds convincing, but do millennials really learn differently? A closer look at learning science paints a much different picture of how people learn. When it comes to learning, age simply does not matter. InPsychological Science, Dr. Jeff Nevid notes, “although many millennials may process information in different ways than earlier generations, it’s important to recognize that the human brain has not magically been rewired in the past 20 years. The principles of learning and memory still apply.”

Interesting statement, but what are those “principles of learning and memory,” and how can chief human resources officers and other corporate training professionals use these principles to improve employee learning and performance, especially during the onboarding process?

For answers to this question, we need to look no further than the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel. The book’s main premise is that the fundamental process of learning remains the same across ages and generations, and there are specific behaviors that people can take to improve learning.

How people actually learn

People learn best when they practice very specific behaviors, according to the book. In fact, science provides evidence that when people perform a few specific actions, they learn more. Here are four principles that encourage learning, according to the book:

1. Learning is better when it takes a lot of effort. No matter how easy you think it should be, orhow easy you want to make it for learners, research shows the more effort expended on learning, the more someone learns. Training professionals should not shy away from developing training that requires effort. Corporate trainers should spend time on the first day discussing specifically the amount of effort necessary to learn a new job. 

2. Active retrieval and testing oneself is best. Research shows that the act of testing oneself helps people learn, especially self-testing. Even when someone gets the answers all wrong, the very attempt to retrieve information helps people learn. New hires should be offered many opportunities to quiz themselves. And the best way to do that is to have new hires come up with their own questions to answer. For example, four days after an important topic is covered, give students time to develop five questions about the topic and then have them answer the questions.

3. Spacing it out. Learning is improved when this “retrieval practice” is spaced out over time.  Instead of cramming all new hire training into a short period of time, help people learn by spacing training out. While it is easier logistically to have all new hires in a classroom during the first two weeks of employment, it’s actually better to take that content and space it out over a longer period of time. Ideally, schedule an initial week of training, with the second week of content scheduled in one-day sessions over five weeks.

4. Mix up practice. Too often, new employee training programs are designed to cover topics in a linear fashion, following the logical workflow of when work is actually performed. According to research in Make it Stick, that’s not the best way to help people learn the workflow. People will learn more when topics are covered in a mix order. In other words, it is counter-productive to cover a topic until everyone has mastered it before moving on to the next concept. To improve learning, mix it up and move on to another topic before the current one is mastered. 

Also see: Why employee training is the secret to flexible work success

The principles cited in Make It Stick are counterintuitive to what many believe critical to how people learn. We get caught up in surveys that say millennials prefer hands-on learning, social learning and team collaboration. Instead, we must look at the evidence science provides – there are specific behaviors that people (of any age) can practice in order to learn. By gaining an understanding these behaviors, CHROs, chief learning officers and other learning professionals can design employee training programs optimized to improve learning and performance in their organizations.

Bill Cushard is the head of training at ServiceRocket, a software company based in Palo Alto, California, and co-author of Critical Skills All learning Professionals Can Put to Use Today.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.