What are connections?
Connections are short, learner-focused opening activities that include four important elements: connecting learners to other learners, to the topic, to their own learning goals, and to the learning outcomes. Learners also connect to the trainer and to the training environment. This means they begin to feel relaxed and at ease with the trainer and comfortable in their environment.
With opening activities that engage learners from the moment they walk into the room, learners can make all these connections in a matter of a few minutes and quickly become interested, engaged, intrigued, motivated, and eager to learn more.
Connecting learners to learners. Most people learn better when they are with friends rather than a group of strangers, and usually feel psychologically safer with people they know. Psychological safety means that learners can ask questions, try things out, make mistakes, express opinions, and take risks while learning. Often, people who attend a training together also work together. Trainers may then assume that, because they work together, they are friends, or at least on friendly terms with each other. This is not always the case.
Psychological safety must be designed and built into the learning experience. This means that, from the moment learners enter the room, they are immersed in meaningful, topic-related activities that help them form a strong learning community.
Connecting learners to topic. Learners, especially adults, come with experiences and information they have gathered along the way, some of it accurate and some of it not, but all of it in their heads nevertheless. The point is that when learners have a chance to review, discuss, or write down what they already know (or think they know) about the topic, they learn more because now any new information they learn during the training can be connected to the old, and the learning pathways in the brain are strengthened.
Put another way, the brain's connections checks out information as soon as it is perceived to see if it fits with anything familiar.
Connecting learners to personal goals. Every learner who walks into a training room has his personal reasons for being there, even if he hasn't consciously thought about them. By bringing these reasons to the conscious level through discussion or writing, learners can: align their own goals with the training outcomes; they have a clearer mental picture of what they want to take away from the training; they let go of any resistance because they are focusing on what they consider important, not just what the trainer says is important; and they strengthen their ability to explain what they learned when the training is over because they took some time at the beginning to explain what they wanted to learn.
Connecting learners to outcomes. Learning outcomes (also called learning objectives or performance criteria) are the knowledge or skills learners will be able to apply once the training is over. What often happens in traditional training programs is that the trainer quickly lectures about the outcomes, and many times, never mentions them again. Worse, the learners haven't had a chance to think about the outcomes or to align them with their own goals.
When learners have the opportunity to talk about the learning outcomes, they will know what they will be able to do once the training is over and have a better chance of ending up there. They also have a greater degree of buy-in to the training because they've had time to connect the stated outcomes to their own personal learning goals.
Why it works
Most people remember the beginning and ending of an experience more easily than they remember all the events that took place in the middle. In addition, if the beginning and ending events are unusual or out-of-the-ordinary, people remember them longer than routine beginnings and endings. According to David Sousa in How the Brain Learns, "we remember best that which comes first, second best that which comes last, and least that which comes just past the middle."
The "primacy-recency principle," then, is a reminder that learners will remember how the training begins and ends more easily than all the pieces in the middle, especially if the beginning and ending are not the traditional ones that most trainers use.
Caveats and results
Connections are not "icebreakers." Icebreakers are opening activities that usually have little to do with the training topic. Yes, icebreakers help people get to know each other socially so that they feel psychologically safer learning with each other; however, because many icebreakers have nothing to do with the training topic or concepts, they waste valuable learning time. Connections, on the other hand, connect learners to each other and to the training topic and concepts. When the opening activity is a connection, it adds to the overall learning.