20 Myths About Learning At Work – Part 1

Worker training has been around since Ogg first said, “Come on, kid, I’ll teach you how to make a flint spearhead.” And from those early days, we’ve been forming and sharing beliefs about the best ways to teach job skills.

But many of the traditional practices, generalizations, and assumptions don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. And we’re left with a collection of myths that could lead to wasted time and poor results.

Just in case any of these debunked doctrines are cluttering your training program, here are 10 of the most common myths. And stay tuned – 10 more to come in Part 2 of this article.

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  1. We have to learn according to our preferred “style.”
A research review by Hal Pashler at UC San Diego found that people do not have tendencies to learn better by reading, hearing, or doing or some other way. We learn best when the channel matches the task. For example, most people learn to operate equipment by doing it rather than reading about it.
  1. We are either left-brained or right-brained.
People love to think of themselves as logical left-brainers or creative right-brainers, but their brains don’t agree. A recent study of 1011 people found no greater levels of connectivity in either hemisphere. Turns out, we all just use our whole brains. (Good thing!)
  1. We only use 10% of our brains.
Speaking of the whole brain, remember when you were told that we only ever use 10% of our brains, except for Einstein? Well, sadly for Einstein, Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine demonstrated that most of our brains are active most of the time.
  1. Brain training makes you smarter.
Except that it doesn’t. Neurosurgeon Dr. Steven Novella’s review of the research found that “Brain-training was generally found to be as effective as traditional book and pencil training, but less labor intensive.” Overall, brain games designed to develop better short-term memory or processing speed simply helped people get better at the games.
  1. We only remember 10% of what we read.
If you’ve ever given a presentation, someone probably told you to include lots of graphics because we only remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, etc. But as Will Thalheimer explains, this neat little metric has never been grounded in science. People remember what they use – whether they read it, heard it, or drew a picture of it.
  1. You stop learning after a certain age.
This myth has kept old dogs from trying out new tricks for entirely too long. It’s well-understood that the brain continues to change and develop all our lives.
But social norms expect adults to “know it all.” And some adults don’t enjoy being beginners. So we’re still reluctant to learn as we age. Just don’t blame it on your brain.
  1. It takes 21 days to form a habit.
Here’s another metric that has no grounding in science. It comes from a plastic surgeon’s observation that most of his patients took about three weeks to get used to their new faces. Research into habit development has found that it takes 18 to 254 days for a habit to form, depending on the degree of change involved and the environmental circumstances.
  1. Our attention spans have shrunk to that of a goldfish.
If your attention span has been compared to that of a goldfish recently, fear not. The goldfish comparison comes from a non-peer-reviewed study done by Microsoft and aimed at giving advice to advertisers who have just a few seconds to capture mindshare.
But other research has shown that people are still capable of deep focus for long periods. Even members of the famously distractible millennial generation have shown improved focus and short-term memory capacity when engaged in tasks that require it, like gaming.
  1. People are born with talent or not.
While there are physical factors that can help people get better at specific skills, such as height for a basketball player, most of the abilities we want to acquire for work don’t depend on innate talent. As Anders Ericsson demonstrates in his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, focused practice with feedback helps people with no unusual gifts develop extraordinary talents.
  1. Knowing is the same as learning.
Many work training programs focus on distributing information, but most skills require application before we’ve really learned them. Memorizing facts and procedures doesn’t automatically translate to ability. People need to practice over time.
It’s always a good idea to examine assumptions. If there’s an adage or generalization that’s been floating around your industry for a while, dig a little deeper and see whether it has a real foundation. You may be amazed and relieved to find out the truth. [/message][su_spacer]

And stay tuned for 10 more learning-at-work myths in Part 2.


Carol Bleyle
Carol Bleyle
CAROL handles client services and marketing for Software, a training platform designed to promote experiential, on-the-job learning and development. She works to realize the vision of turning the 70% of informal learning we do at work into a powerful training and development tool. With an M.A. in Cognitive Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, Carol views skills development through the lens of cognitive science and psychology And over the past 23 years, whether in traditional classrooms or on-the-go mentoring in her own company, Carol has constantly searched for realistic ways to make learning more natural and engaging. As a writer, trainer, consultant, entrepreneur and public speaker, Carol helps business owners find practical solutions to employee performance. She and her husband reside in beautiful Loudoun County Virginia with three energetic dogs and two lazy horses.

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  1. Good points. Lego came out with SeriousPlay ( It’s based on research they’ve done with the eyes, mind, and hands. When all three are done at the same time, people learn very quickly. Also, certain writing styles promote learning more so than others. If the author uses visual and emotionally charged language, their audience will retain more of the information than without.

    The best way to do something is to actually do it. Over. And over. And over.

    • Great points, Chris! When we base learning programs as much as possible on evidence-based techniques, everyone benefits.