Brainformative Blog

Double Double Toil & Trouble

The Brain Science of On-boarding: Part 1

So, you’re stoked about the training you signed up for. Maybe it was an online course or maybe a brick and mortar class . . . you hit the buy button and felt a rush of excitement because you couldn’t wait to dig in.

You get your access info, login, poke around for 40 minutes seeing all the videos and downloads and slowly in the pit of your stomach you feel a pinch. You click over to Facebook thinking: It’s a LOT of content and did I just waste my money?

Or . . .

You show up the day of class for an 8 AM start time. You were pumped when you hit the alarm clock at 5 AM yet mildly disoriented from the shift in your schedule. The morning was off kilter. Because of a longer commute to the training site you only had a rushed cup of coffee. The anxiety built as you wound through an unfamiliar building to find a seat in an unfamiliar classroom with unfamiliar faces.

The bagels and cream cheese and a second cup of coffee take the edge off the awkwardness, for a few minutes . . . until the presenter starts down the well worn path of introductions and preliminary remarks and housekeeping and the first few minutes of a droning lecture.

Your mind starts to wander as you pick through the course materials, the thick binders filled with the knowledge you paid good money to consume. After the first 40 minutes, slowly, in the pit of your stomach, you feel a pinch and pick up your phone to check Facebook thinking: It’s a LOT of content and did I just waste my money?

Here is the truth:

  • 97% of those purchasing online training fail to complete it.
  • 97% of those sitting in a brick and mortar class mentally check out before the first hour is over.

What accounts for these stats?


First and foremost, learning is work. There is no way around this reality. The brain must exert energy to acquire knowledge. There is no way to magically download content into people's brains. Unfortunately far too many online offerings imply that e learning does exactly that: watch the videos’, hop on a webinar, alakazam poof! The knowledge lands in the brain. When the learner realizes that they are on the hook for doing the work - that dirty four letter word in our one click fulfillment culture -overwhelm sets in and the brain punts.

Overwhelm, is a learning killer.

Second, are the cognitive neurological/psychological factors that impact what is currently called “engagement.” Those factors include, priming, contextualization, the Curiosity Gap, and the learner’s individual value proposition (among others).

But here is the cool part: training (e learning or Brick and Mortar) can be structured to mitigate overwhelm.

This is done with a powerful on boarding sequence.


A deeper look at the learners journey.


Lisa hits the buy button. She feels the thrill of possibilities, the potential, and the increase of value she will get when she masters the knowledge. She is optimistic and can’t wait to dig in. She picks through the course maybe watching the first few videos. She feels tired as she tries to focus on an exercise. She doesn’t have the energy. She logs out deciding she’ll come back after a nap.

In a B & M learning event Lisa can’t escape for a nap, so she stifles a yawn and tries to feed off the group energy but even that wanes as the fire hose lecture pours forth from the Sage on the stage.

The content comes fast and furious; with so much information it becomes frustrating to keep track of how it all fits: How the lectures and the handouts, and “hands on training” (if there is any) gets her the results she’s signed up to acquire. Her will to persist fades as confusion takes root, frustration builds, overwhelm increases.

“Did I just throw money out the window? Am I ever going to get this?”

The overwhelm peeks and . . . she punts. She clicks on Facebook wondering how to get her money back.

You can protect your learners

As you can see from the above, a LOT is happening in a learner’s mind but most of it revolves around two central issues: The learner losing sight of their initial value proposition and overwhelm.

The value proposition.

It is impossible to separate individual value from learning.

I can have extraordinary things to teach you about the cognitive neuroscience behind learning, but if you are looking for sandwich recipes to expand your culinary skills so your 7 year old has something new at lunch you will not value what I have to offer so you won’t make the effort to learn.

This is a much bigger discussion but the bottom line is; humans are always assessing the value of knowledge and the amount of energy required to file it into long term memory.

The brains foundational job is to keep you alive and a key element of that job is energy conservation. When we encounter knowledge the brain’s first task is identifying its value to the task living and then allocate energy accordingly.

The more “life and death” the knowledge the more the brain spends energy to acquire the knowledge. The crocodile will eat you. The snake will bite you. The spider will crawl on you. These facts of reality stick in our heads pretty readily.

But the farther from “life and death” type knowledge we get the more the brain negotiates what to do with new knowledge. This is why we all have a Jacks Almanac of Useless Facts stored in our heads that seems to defy this principle, but in the end all knowledge is filed away to satisfy some part of our personal value structure.

So when we enroll in a course the brain begins its endless negotiation of energy allocation trying to decide where this new knowledge falls between “life and death” and “Jack’s Almanac.”

With this value negotiation in mind it becomes clear that excellent training must provide learners with a way to consistently connect their personal value structure with the course content. From the outset the learner must confirm and reaffirm on “What’s in it for Me.”

In a culture dominated by altruism, where having a personal interest in anything is considered morally corrupt, the idea that learners must have a selfish reason to learn anything goes against the grain. But there is no such thing as sacrificial learning. People do not “engage” for the good of society, or the good of the organization. Psychological disorders notwithstanding, people pay attention - give their mental energy to acquire knowledge - for one reason: because it furthers their life.


You might quibble that Facebook has no real life value, but this fails to grasp that in the brain’s negotiation, value is impacted by myriad factors over which you, the educator, have no control. It doesn’t matter if YOU don’t think it is valuable. It only matters that the learner does.

What you can impact is continually focusing the learner back to their original reason to engage the content.

This is the foundation of on-boarding.

The Overwhelm Threshold.

Unless our possibility bone has been removed by a Cynic-ectomy our brains excel at considering the vast opportunities available to experience. We truly come alive when we take action towards realizing the opportunity. We love to work, overcome obstacles and achieve our values.

I’d lay pretty good odds that the happiest people you know are those who work at what they love. They have challenges and setbacks but in the end they win. Some wins are big and some are small but they thrive from win to win, from value acquisition, to value acquisition.

By contrast I suspect some of the most miserable people you know are the ones who hate what they do, but it isn't the job they hate. (People can be happy doing truly nasty, uncomfortable jobs.)

Dig into why they hate what they do and the root problem is toil. They wake up and work and work and work but they do not experience the win. They have challenges both big and small and that is all they have. They fail to obtain the value for which they strive to achieve. The result is they feel that it just doesn’t matter how hard they work, how much energy they spend. In the end they won’t win. Too much to do. No time to do it. Failure is inevitable. This is the recipe for toil.

Toil is human Kryptonite.

Toil sucks the life out of us faster than any hardship.

People have survived gulags and concentration camps and presentations filled with an endless reading of bullet points. Those who perish all had the same issue: they could not abide the toil, the hopelessness that accompanies futility.

This state of existence is so painful human’s avoid it at all costs.

The feeling of overwhelm is rooted in toil so the moment we get a whiff of overwhelm we start to mentally shut down.

By contrast we love to win.

We live to overcome, to find the next thing to challenge us and then . . . succeed.

This extraordinarily gratifying process is intrinsic to the brain's function. As we seek to learn, to integrate new knowledge, to see connections between pieces of information, the brain releases BDNF’s. And then when we succeed at making the correct connection; when we have those wonderful “Ah Ha!” moments, the brain releases dopamine, which fills us with a profound sense of fulfillment and happiness.

So leveraging the brain’s process of overcoming challenges, making connections and experiencing incremental wins is what banishes overwhelm, destroys toil, and drives us through the learning process.

The essential on-boarding process.

  1. Good decision vs buyers remorse.
  2. What’s in it for ME!
  3. Focused bite sized challenges and WIN!.

What does on-boarding to a class look like?

Watch for Part 2 of The Brain Science of On-boarding in the next blog "Double Double Finish & Fulfill"



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