Which principle is new for you?

  • Psychological safety
  • Integration
  • Incorporation or graduality
  • Repetition
  • Generation effect or activity principle
  • Sensory perception

Psychological safety

Similar to resistance to change, people can have a strong resistance to learning. Edgar Schein described this resistance as a consequence of two competing anxieties: learning anxiety vs survival anxiety[1] When your anxiety of learning something new and making mistakes is higher than the realization that change is needed to survive, there will be a resistance to learning. This leaves two approaches to “make people learn”:

  • Scare or force them into learning by making the survival anxiety bigger than the learning anxiety
  • Lowering their anxiety of learning and fear of failure, by creating psychological safety.

If you want your training to be successful you need to create a psychologically safe environment.


“When do people learn in your training environment? When I provide new knowledge or tell them how to perform new skills.” We still receive this type of answer by many trainers we speak to around the globe, which continues to amaze us to this day. Since the 1960’s we know that learners understand new elements in the context of what they already know and new information must thus always be linked to prior knowledge.[2] If that's the case, learners will automatically make connections themselves. Without ‘connecting the dots’, there is an increased risk of lower attention, demotivation and making wrong connections, … It is an essential principle for achieving learning engagement and sustainable business impact.

Incorporation or graduality

This means that new information (knowledge, skills, attitudes, a.o.) should be acquired in small bits. Learning requires information to “pass through” the short term memory where there is only limited capacity and new information is quickly forgotten (in 5-15 sec without rehearsal).[3] As a consequence when there is too much information at the same time or too complex information coming in, this new information will not be processed or become emotionally linked. The principle of incorporation or graduality means that you approach learning complexity from the learners perspective and slice up new information in manageable units.


You do not learn when you want to learn, but when you deliberately think about the information. Repetition is neurologically the strongest learning mechanism, as long as the same mode of repetition is avoided. Using the same mode of repetition results in demotivation and a lower rate of transfer. Why? Learners are more than just a group of neurons, they are embodied beings designed for movement.

Generation effect or activity principle

Imagine you’re signed up for an ‘interactive training’ and enter a university-like auditorium. Almost everyone sits behind each other The training is starting and the trainer says with high motivation ‘strap yourself in your seat for this wild 2 hour-long learning ride.’ Even when this is said to us by the best speaker in the world, we’re out … Don’t get us wrong, the training could be interesting, but will sin against one of the most powerful learning principles: when learners are actively involved in the construction of knowledge (motoric, cognitive and affective) there is a better processing, storage and retrieval of information[4-5].

Sensory perception

When new information is presented in a way that it addresses multiple senses, learning becomes richer and more meaningful, and reduces the risk of cognitive overload. Abstract concepts become more tangible by transforming them into concrete experiences.

[1] Schein, E. (2002). The anxiety of learning: interview by Diane Coutu. Harvard Business Review, p. 100-106.
[2] Ausubel, D.P. (1968), Educational Psychology: a cognitive view, Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
[3] Cowan N. (2005). Working memory capacity. Hove, East Sussex. UK: Psychology press.
[4] Jensen, E. (2009). Fierce teaching: Purpose, passion, and what matters most. Corwin Press.
[5] Neelen, M. & Kirschner, P.A. (2020). Evidence-informed learning design: creating training to improve performance, London: Kogan Page.

Never forget to also train the trainer!

Harder, better, faster and stronger learning requires trainers to be content, but also learning & development experts. And this may require some additional skill learning on their part. Do you want to upskill your trainers after reading the abovementioned learning principles? In that case, our 'Train-the-trainer' virtual classroom courses are exactly what you need! Contact us with your questions and we'll show you how these courses take place.

Sven Gellens
Product Owner of Talent Management, Consultant

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