10 ways to engage the senses in learning

March 12, 2019 5:31 pm Published byAzesta

Inspired by a workshop facilitated by the lovely Nicki Davey of Saltbox, I decided to write a short article about the ways I already engage people’s senses in learning for more curiosity, intrigue and to help learning more easily enter the long-term memory. I have also included one or two ideas I stole from the workshop.

Before I begin, for any of you not convinced of the need for multi-sensory learning experiences, here is an example of a research project that Nicki pointed me to that demonstrated the value

“Participants in the sensorial room performed well on the individual listening task. While the subjects were memorizing, learning and studying, they were able to remember more words, reproduce more words and their concentration levels were heightened compared to those in the neutral room.” https://www.steelcase.com/asia-en/research/articles/topics/wellbeing/engaging-five-senses/  

I was also very convinced by an experiment we did on the workshop in which recall of concepts was drastically improved by the presence of a real orange – you had to be there!  

Anyway, to my list of 10…  

1. Use experiential learning activities – this was bound to my first point! I am lucky enough to have a vast array of activities from Metalog, RSVP, MTa International and other places. Many of my favourites are made of wood, so in additional to the sense of touch, sight and sound that form part of these activities, smell is also awakened by these tactile pieces.   

2. Make models and theories physical – when introducing models or theories, I almost always get learners to build them from laminated pieces on a table, from papers on a pinboard or using ropes and cards on the floor. This means that instead of just stimulating the sense of sight with a dreaded PowerPoint presentation, the sense of touch is also involved as well as physical movement which obviously helps people stay awake. It is very rare that I show learners a list of objectives or a list of modules they are to undertake without in some way involving them for example by getting them to colour code them with stickers according to their level of interest or competence. 

3. Props are great to arouse curiosity about a subject, to encourage people to think metaphorically or to inspire reflective thought. For example, in introducing a theme such as coaching, a set of objects might encourage a group to think about some key principles of coaching which will then be better embedded in long-term memory and a picture of those props in the area where their coaching sessions take place could serve as a stimulus to memory. The props if chosen carefully, will stimulate the full range of senses. When introducing Insights or 6 thinking hats, this is learned much more quickly and retained for the longer when accompanied by an actual set of hats which can worn or placed centrally on the table or within the appropriate group.  

4. Collage can be a great way of helping learners to reflect and access their ideas. I use this particular in visioning activities and glossy magazines and scissors are great for stimulating sight, touch and smell. In one very creative venue where I worked with a small organisation on their vision and values, there were some massive computer screens with virtual paint cans and visions could be developed using graffiti which was pretty visual as well as verbal and auditory as there were spray sound effects!  

5. Sound effects can be used to stimulate memories and arouse curiosity. Two pieces of music that I find invaluable in the workshop room are the ‘Countdown’ music for when you want learners to stop an activity and the ‘Gallery’ music from Tony Hart’s art programme of the 1980s for when learners are walking around to look at displayed outputs from the programme or posters on the walls. I’m also really interested in the idea of associating sound effects with key learning points and then using the sound effects as a quiz at the end of the workshop to help learners recall key information.   

6. Giving lots of choice as to how learners present information – for example there is a great activity I often use at the start of a workshop called ‘simultaneous surveys’ thanks to Dr Roger Greenaway for that one. It involves learners in small teams, going around all of their fellow participants to survey them for information or points of view. For example, depending upon the content of the workshop, they might be finding out how often each manager runs one-to-ones or what each manager is looking forward to about the programme. They then present this information back in a creative way, for example through rap, poetry or song, using graphs or charts, making models with play dough etc.   

7. I have many times used drumming as an activity in team development programmes. It is great to be able to give learners some basic skills and then encourage them to compose a percussive piece as a team activity. As well as providing plenty of food for a review session on the way they work together, this stimulates their hearing as well as sense of touch and sight.   

8. Getting outside – those of you that know me or regularly read my articles will already know that I am a big fan of getting learners outside. As well as providing fresh air, a break from the training room and the opportunity to really talk unencumbered by the need for eye contact as people walk along, all of their senses are stimulated simultaneously making the insights they discover on their reflective walk or time sitting on some moss much more likely to be retained in the long-term. This time outside might also incorporate scavenger hunts where learners find an object for example to represent a key learning point for them or something they are going to do as a result of the workshop.   

9. Magic tricks – after attending a brilliant ‘tricks for trainers’ programme several years ago, I went through a phase of incorporating lots of ‘magic’ into my training. There were card tricks that made great metaphors, a transparent balloon through which I could place a giant needle without bursting it (often used as an introduction to giving feedback) and also flash paper used to help learners’ objectives disappear when they had been met. These are great as long as you have the time to practise and prepare properly so that you can be slick! Then senses, curiosity and long-term memory can be stimulated effectively rather than simply amusement at your ineptitude!  

10. Herbs – this is an idea that I will steal straight from Nicki. Herbs smell and taste great as well as stimulating sight and touch. I haven’t yet worked out how to link these to different learning points, but using different herbs to split your learners into groups gives them a great excuse to be able to fiddle with them, releasing aromas that will later remind them of your programme and hopefully something they have learned!

To come up with another 10 ideas, I’d better go and sniff some rosemary…  

Nicki Davey has a book coming out later this year entitled The Holistic Learning Handbook which will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. It contains a chapter on multi-sensory learning and I’ll be looking out for it as I’m sure it will stimulate many more ideas!  

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