Creating That "Ah Ha!" Moment For Learners

This is a topic that came up in our compliance staff meeting today.  Part of the basis for our discussion was an article entitled, "The Neuroscience of Leadership"  which talks about what happens in the brain when these types of "ah ha" experiences occur.  We all know training is more that just putting content in front of a learner and expecting them to understand and apply it, but how do we create that moment where the light goes on, the heavens part and revalation occurs?  Of course, we can't "make" this happen, but how do we create an environment in our courses where these types of experiences can occur?

No real answers at this point, just questions...


23 Replies
Jeanette Brooks

@Bruce - Ha! Thanks. Now I'll be plagued all weekend by the tune of "Take On Me." LOL!

@Jonathan - thanks for posting such a though-provoking question and an interesting article. This topic reminds me a lot of the stuff that John Medina talks about in his Brain Rules project.  Have you seen that? I like how he breaks down the 12 rules, and the implications for those of us in the learning industry. It's notable that some of the "rules" are essentially out of our control as learning developers. (For example, we can't predict or control rule #7, which has to do with sleep, or rule #3, which deals with the brain's hard-wiring.)

But! There are a lot of things in the list that we can control... i.e., one of the biggies is rule #12, which says that people learn best when they satisfy their natural need for exploration. We can leverage that natural need by building learning programs that invite and encourage exploration as part of the learning process, rather than locking every learner into a linear course with locked-down navigation. Another one I love is rule #10 which says that vision trumps all other senses - that too can be leveraged in e-learning by using a compelling and meaningful visual design. It's really interesting stuff.

Steve Flowers

Really interesting article. I think we're looking at a complex assembly with quite a few moving parts and many "it depends" variables. Exploring the question "how do we create an environment in our courses where a-ha! moments are more likely?" it seems to me we aren't talking about a single degree of "a-ha!". There's an intensity component. The intensity of epiphany would seem to have an effect on a change in expertise or a shift in values. Intensity itself can appear in the intensity of practice, intensity of emotional journey, intensity of consequences. All of these things (and many other variables that might be modified by intensity) all affect the assimilation switch. Hitting that intensity target is critical. Too hot or too cold and the measured effect can be undesirable.

Part of what feeds assimilation / epiphany is persuasion. There are some powerful things we can do when we break away from "I clicked the I believe button" and move towards "wow, I totally get it". You hit the nail on the head when you said we can't make this happen. Persuading acceptance is sometimes a huge part of the success formula. The application of psychological principles, the science of compliance, can help us get there (so much stuff shared between UX and ID).

Lots of really great stuff at uxmag.

Bruce Graham

@Jeanette - yes, I have been mumming it ever since I posted, karmiic retribution I think....

GREAT question

@Jonathan says "You cannot make it happen", but I think to some extent you can.

As an example, I again mention the technique of "Absurdity" that I use occasionally.

For example, a course on Customer Service:

"Here is a new company mission statement: "We will always tell our clients that their problems not really matter to us".

Of course, that would be an absurd mission statement, however, it is (in effect...) what we are doing EVERY time we fail to answer the phones in 6 rings, which is happening 28% of the time".

So - we have a company mission statement, IN THEIR EYES, that says "Company X will not answer your calls quickly, one third of the time".

By taking people to a state where you demonstrate the absurd, you can show how learning is absolutely necessary - not just learning, but also a Kirkpatrick L3+ behavioural change. I guess I am probably talking about cognitive dissonance as well here.

It's a techhnique that is unusual, so do not use it too often, but used occasionally, and with the absurdity being as pronounced as possible,  I believe it can be used to create that "Aha" moment.


Zara Ogden

I can't recall that thread it was but recently a community member shared outside the box thinking that was very emotion and extremely "ah ha".

The program was about being a foster parent the the connections that a child in the "system" receives and has taken away. It was very simple graphically but so effective. My mommy instincts made go home and hug my daughter.

I tried to find the thread but was unsuccessful. perhaps someone else can link it here for me.

Any way the point is that we need to clearly identify with our audience and know what will capture them to give them an "ah ha". Is it hummor? Is it anger? is it fear? How can i invoke emotion from them? I like what many community members have to say about creating a story. Creating branching scenarios that are as realistic as possible to make the user feel that they are "in" the program. I consider various types of media when picturing how a program will come together. What about that commercial made me want to buy that product? What about that tag line made me want to read that article? Why is this my favorite show?

When I was an in class trainer the proudest moments were when a learner looked at me with big bright eyes and a confident smile. Now as an ID I struggle with not having that instant gratification but strive to achieve it still. Sure I won't reach everyone but I wouldn't in a class either.

I think this question is what will always drive instructional designers, trainingers and all the likes of us to try harder and what to achive more. This is a great topic and thought.

Jonathan Workman

@Jeanette - I've never seen the Brain Rules content, but it looks VERY interesting.  I'll pick up this book and the DVD.

@Steve - Thanks for the comments on intensity.  It is like finding just the right seasoning for that special dish you are creating...too much or too little and you've practically ruined it. 

@Bruce - I like your technique of Absurdity and will employ this in future courses.  Thanks!

@everyone: Groove on this...

Saenna B Ahman

I second Zara's opinion about creating a story. If you have a riveting story, the learner can't help but pay attention! I know not every course warrants a building a complex story or interaction, but sometimes it doesn't take as much as we think to turn static information into a story that people can relate to.

Bruce Graham

Kevin - that was a beautiful, powerful example in your course.......

I love the technique of the "story".

In my online course on Presentation Skills, when I am explaining about how to create "The Anatomy of a Presentation: The delicious bit in the Middle", here's what I say about the storytelling option:

The Storyteller

Owes it's roots and power to people such as Hans Christian Andersen rather than anyone from business or presentation theory.
Before PowerPoint, (and slides/overhead projectors), people had to engage people "Face-to-face", (back to the visual cues again - you were looking at the person, not the screen and slides).

Nowadays, have PowerPoint, Blogs, SMS, PDA's etc. - so storytelling actually brings back forgotten techniques.

Emphasize smells, emphasise sight - use all the senses.  Use unexpected visual stimuli, (we'll look a little at graphics later).
Take them on an emotional roller-coaster - Ambivalence, to interest, to conflict, reach a plateau, resolve the conflict, add a finishing touch, and the promise or suggestion of the future.

Play with their senses, just because something is deadly serious that does not mean it has to be deadly dull.

Jonathan Workman

@Zara - I think we posted at almost the same time so I missed your comments.  I agree - story IS important!  When getting material from our subject matter owners, I always request real-life examples.  It brings (what can be) dry compliance content to life and makes it relatable for the learner.

Good stuff all!

Steve Flowers

Sometimes the story, and the interactions, ARE the performance. I just finished a long set of courses that used this pattern:

  • Present a client and advisor (real people)
  • Engage the client and advisor in short bits of pithy interchange
  • Expand on the concepts presented in the questions within the interchange with illustrations and narrative

This pattern dove in and out (hopefully in a fluid way) of the story presented by the interactions. This served two goals:

  1. The interaction between the customer and advisor was at the core of the desired performance. Modeling this interaction was beneficial by itself.
  2. The interaction presented authentic questions. Things you'd hear from a client in reaction to some kind of cue. We provided a model response by the advisor and dove into the content either through a narrative sequence or with some type of progressive disclosure mechanism (depending on the concept priority). This was a natural way to unroll the concepts leading up to the practice activities.

The customer loves this approach, the students don't hate it, and it's actually easier to assemble based on authentic contexts than to try to work from the content as a central element. The process is enjoyable using this approach as well.

This won't work for every situation. But for the set of problems we were trying to solve, it seemed just the ticket.

Steve Flowers

Here's a short article (one of 100 things you should know about people #56):

I think there might be a distinction between optimal conveyance / affect and processing information. As much as I might like the concept of story and authentic contexts, there are times where it's like a man trying to wear a woman's high heel shoe two sizes too small. It's interesting, but most likely wrong. Story is a great pattern, but shouldn't be considered as the answer in every case

James Brown

IMHO the AH-HA factor can be obtained but it just might take two to three times through the course for some people to finally get it. That's why students retake college courses because the first time around the light never came on. However when they took the course again from a different instructor who explained things differently, then the light bulb came on.  This to me drives the point home that no matter how well you think you have designed your materials, the light may not come one for everyone and for these special case scenarios, it's good to have a couple different examples.

David Anderson

James Brown said:

This to me drives the point home that no matter how well you think you have designed your materials, the light may not come one for everyone and for these special case scenarios, it's good to have a couple different examples.

Absolutely! Think too often we're asked to "choose" a best process or example and go with it, rather than crafting designs that enable multiple perspectives to be available for learners.

Just ask a group of automotive SMEs how to diagnose an electrical problem or some mortgage  SMEs how they manage their loan pipelines, and you'll quickly learn there isn't one "best practice". But you wouldn't know that from the live courses.

What are some ways designers can build multiple examples or SME perspectives into their courses?

Kevin Thorn

David, when you asked how automotive SME's are asked to diagnose an electrical problem, you've just opened up my world (day job). We face this 'ah-ha' moment challenge almost with every course. Product knowledge is fairly straight forward, but offering those moments with a typical sequential order of things becomes challenging.

One in particular I'm working on deals with the Air Conditioning system. The vendor-funded build is about their chemicals for stopping a leak, but boring features and benefits about their products I can read in a PDF (or the back panel of their packaging).

Instead, (still storyboarding) the learner is presented with a brief (non-threatening) explanation of the A/C system. As they travel "through" the system learning all about the various components, all of a sudden there's a LEAK! The course sort of implodes on itself with the visualization of it (the course) getting "warmer." In the case of an A/C leak, there are a number of things that could be wrong. Bottom line though is the A/C is not blowing cold air, it's 100 degrees outside, and I just want it fixed.

From there the learner is set on a branching scenario to troubleshoot the system. Along the way various products are introduced as possible solutions to the problem. The learner is also given background information, age of vehicle, etc. so as to determine the best course of action. There really is no "right" answer or path, rather there is the correct method in which to solve the problem. In some cases, one can cause more damage to the system if the proper sequence isn't adhered to.

The 'ah-ha' moment is when the leak occurred. The human brain now wants to fix that problem and will anticipate each screen as they learn more and want to fix it.  And to keep the course from melting before their eyes

This may not be as powerful as some of the other examples shared and I'm not educated enough in how the brain works, but I know an "ah-ha" when I see it

Gerry Wasiluk

Actually, all this reminds me of one big advantage that e-learning has over live classroom.

With effective e-learning, whenever the ah-ha moment(s) comes, the learner can stop or pause the course and reflect or go off on a tangent on their own.  A serendipity moment of personal exploration (to get back to Jeanette's notion of learner control). 

Just a "little" thing but a very powerful thing that well-developed e-learning can play to.

You're not supposed to do that with ILT and wanting to always be the "attentive, good learner" and yet I find it happening all the time.  I want to yell "Hey, stop the lecture so I can get off on my own for a while.  I got an idea or relationship I want to explore."  Sometimes, this ability to go off and explore brings the most value.

If I take the time to do that in a live learning event, I often go off for a while and sometime find that I've missed something important.  With e-learning, you don't have to worry about that (usually--unless the course has some kind of timer or only moves automatically).  Again, just pause the course and then come back to it when you are ready.

This relates to what Tom talks about in terms of pacing a course and also building in things like reflective exercises.  If you pace the course right, the learner can use the breaks to reflect and build off their a-ha moments to find ways to develop further and bring value to themselves and to their organizations.