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State Dependent Learning

by Steven Cerri

There has been a good deal of discussion regarding learning processes especially for adult learners. Regardless of the age or education of the learner, all learning seems to be “state dependent”. A “state” in this context, is an emotional, physiological condition. The statement, “learning is state dependent” means that in order for a person to have access to certain specific information or behavior they have previously learned, they must access the state they were in at the time they acquired the learning. If the state they are in when they attempt to access the learned information is too far from the “learning state” they will not be able to access the previously learned information or behavior.

Let me give you an example. Many training programs use “role-playing” as a means of giving participants “hands-on” experience. (STCI does not use role-playing for reasons that will be explained shortly). In role-playing an artificial experience is set up in the classroom. Everyone in the classroom knows it is an artificial, safe, and controlled situation, without significant adverse potential consequences. Later, when the student is faced with a real-world situation, the expectation is that the student will have access to the learned behavior and behave as they did in the role-playing exercise.

However, the real-world situation is often filled with stress. It is a far cry from the safe, classroom role-play. As an example, a technical professional may be unable to access the classroom behavior because the real-world state (i.e., situation) is so unlike the role-play. She may then resort to a behavior that is accessible in her present state, and usually this behavior is something she has used ‘before’ the training took place. Therefore, an observer would rightfully ask; “What happened to what you learned in the training?”

A second example is useful. Imagine an engineer has taken a class on delegation. In the class role play, he learns how to calmly evaluate delegation requirements and how to assign work to various people. In this class role play everyone knows and acknowledges either consciously or subconsciously that this is an artificial situation.

A month later, this certain engineer is managing a project that gets behind schedule and is at significant risk of overrunning budget. He is convinced any adverse results will reflect directly and personally on his career. This is not a safe environment. This is not an artificial situation. This is a real world situation and the engineer is under considerable stress. His state is far from his state in the class.

The engineer now has the choice to perform the tasks himself or to delegate. However, he only learned how to delegate in a calm, safe role play. Since the current situation is stressful, he does not have access to the delegation learning that took place in class. He resorts to what he learned to do in past stressful situations… he does the work himself working long hours to make up the schedule.

STCI provides state dependent learning. In my training classes I do not use role playing. I customize my training programs so that whatever exercises I use are tailored to the present situations in your organization. The courses are structured to allow graduates to access their learning from a variety of states, so they are not limited to being in only one state to access what they have learned. State dependent learning, training, and facilitation is just one of the unique aspects of STCerri International training and facilitation processes.