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Krystyna Gadd

How to Accelerate Learning


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The fourth secret of accelerated learning: take care of the environment

What effect can the learning environment can have on learner engagement and performance?

Last time we explained why learning providers should design with variety in mind.  

In this article will look at the learning environment – taking into account the physical and also the emotional and social aspects of this. This applies equally to learning that does not happen face-to-face. The environment exists even if it is a virtual one.

Comfortable classrooms – physically and psychologically – promote a sense of wellbeing, keep minds focused, and limit distractions.
- Herman Miller  

The physical environment

The physical environment has such an impact on how participants may feel, so it’s important to know that there will be things that can be changed and those that cannot. There have been many occasions when I arrived at a training venue to find that the room was any one (or many) of these things:

  • Stuffy
  • Too hot/cold
  • Little or no natural light
  • Cramped
  • Untidy
  • Smelly
  • Full of equipment (that was not needed)
  • Desks in rows
  • Arranged in a fixed set up
  • No space for posters

My first job was always to think ‘how can I make this more inviting and comfortable for the participants?’

Making the room more comfortable may have involved doing the simplest of things:

  • Opening windows and blinds
  • Adjusting the temperature
  • Rearranging some of the tables or even moving the chairs into a horseshoe and not using the tables
  • Using the air freshener from my toolkit (lemon essential oil in water provides a cheap and pleasant refresh without being too heavy)
  • Safely removing some of the pictures to allow space for my own posters

Tips for improving the physical environment 

The learning environment can have a palpable effect on the way participants interact and therefore learn.

As the participants walk into the room, a common reaction is ‘wow’. It’s clear that the space has been designed to be a safe place for L&D professionals to learn and experiment, as well as to arouse their curiosity. Here are just a few of the things they encounter:

The ‘brown wall’

This is an activity to engage them immediately and get them talking and interacting with each other. This feeds into the social aspect too, which we will discuss later. They share what their toughest topics are to design for and what has inspired them. The welcome and preparatory emails will have prepared them for this level of interaction and participation.

Activity zones

There is a central table arranged in the middle of the room with the board game on it and then at the edges there are tables with activities laid out, encouraging them to be curious about this environment.


Posters are stuck on the wall, which participants are encouraged to read. I also add a ‘teaser’ that they might gain extra points if they pay attention to some of the information on the wall.

A resources table

On this table there are a variety of objects I have used at different times in face-to-face learning. This gets them to engage with a level of creativity and how they could be more creative in their practice.

Floor activities

These are mixed in to arouse curiosity in the learners.

There are some other aspects to the sessions that help set the tone, including:

  • They are encouraged to introduce themselves to anyone they do not know so that we do not have to do the ‘creeping wall of death’ introductions.
  • Their introduction to each other is designed to make them feel safe and the room is arranged to pique their interest about what is to come. In the workshop we also spend some time talking about what has made them curious and how they might apply it to their own training. We know that curiosity will create a dopamine hit and that this is associated with reward, which will keep them engaged for longer. Interestingly, learning specialist Stella Collins says, “curiosity increases with uncertainty – up to a point”. This suggests that a small amount of knowledge can spark curiosity and a hunger for knowledge. Teasing people with a small amount of knowledge in the room may be a great way to immediately get them engaged in the topic.
  • If the environment is a virtual one, you can still influence (if possible) by asking the participants to choose a space that is quiet; private; comfortable (but not distracting); close to refreshments; airy with natural light but no glare on their screen.

Before we move from the physical, face-to-face environment, I just wanted to mention one key observation that has helped in-house teams greatly. When the set-up is boardroom style, with no obvious ‘front’ to the room, the participants will focus in on each other. Compare this to a traditional train-the-trainer, where all eyes are on the ‘sage on the stage’ at the front. In the former, you can more easily facilitate a discussion that goes deep into what their practices are as a team and get them to determine the best way forward.

The social environment

The social aspects of learning can increase learner engagement – both with each other as well as with the subject.

Social isolation has been shown to have the same effect on our brain as physical pain – so why wouldn’t we want our participants to engage with each other as well as the topic? Engagement helps people to develop a sense of safety and to settle quickly into learning.

This can be done in many ways, even before the face-to-face encounters happen, such as:

  • Connecting them via a social platform like Yammer, Slack or Trello where they begin to get a sense of who is participating alongside them.
  • For in-house teams, set them a challenge to work together on that will benefit the whole team.
  • Using webinars or live online learning sessions to make that connection and encourage group work.
  • Within face-to-face sessions, create teams that will compete against each other. This way you have the element of reward (and a dopamine hit) as well as the safety of learning in a group. Be careful to mix up the teams from time to time so that the competitiveness does not descend into aggression – it does happen!

Academic studies have now proven that social learning can actually improve learners’ results.

The emotional environment

This final aspect plays a more important role than you may imagine, and is heavily influenced by the previous two.

Towards the end of a two-day workshop a few years ago, I asked the participants what had impacted them the most. One participant, a trainer of over 20 years, said, “the way the classroom was set up”. This was surprising enough, but then another participant explained “it made me feel valued”.

These two responses blew my mind. If by setting up the physical environment you can make people feel valued, why wouldn’t you do this?

When I asked the person to further explain why it had made them feel valued, they said “looking at the posters and the resources, it looked like someone had gone to a lot of trouble for us”. The posters I use are reusable vinyl ones, so they had not specifically been created for this group, but it does go to show that good quality resources and a well-dressed room makes an impact on participants.

Reducing stress and social isolation can create the right environment for people to learn effectively, according to Stella Collins. Here are some further elements to support their emotional wellbeing:

  • Make sure they are directed to the right place and have all the correct information they need.
  • Ensure their basic hygiene/personal needs are met – e.g. accessible toilets, refreshments, dietary needs, smoking etc.
  • Make participants feel they can contribute to the learning and that their individual knowledge or skills are taken into account.

A poor environment can set people off on the wrong foot and make starting that learning journey harder. In contrast, a well thought out environment can have a huge impact on how people interact when learning.

In the next article we will be looking at the fifth and final secret of accelerated learning, which is about the brain and how to leverage the way it works in the learning environment.

One Response

  1. Being aware of our
    Being aware of our environment is a great factor in learning and communicating. Good thing to develop this awareness to improve and accelerate our ability to learn.

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Krystyna Gadd


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