NLL Distinguished Speaker Series: Dr. Bror Saxberg

On March 2, 2022 the Next Level Lab welcomed Dr. Bror Saxberg as a guest for the Distinguished Speaker Series. Dr. Saxberg is the founder of the recently launched learning engineering consulting firm LearningForge, LLC, and was previously the Vice President of Learning Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Chief Learning Officer of Kaplan, Inc. 

Dr. Saxberg’s presentation, Learning Engineering: The Art of Applying Learning Science to Real-World Training, explored the impact learning science, motivation, and understanding expertise has on learning and teaching to increase outcomes from professional training and development. The presentation offered some suggestions for practitioners looking to explore these challenges further and strengthen opportunities for employee development and growth:


1) Consider how learning works

Dr. Saxberg explained working memory (short retention) and long-term memory to further understand how expertise is achieved in a specific area. Working memory is a conscious process of slow processing and short retention in which, on average, only 3-5 things can be remembered at once. This process can be highly flexible and generate new insights/knowledge, but can also be error prone, potentially resulting in mistakes being made. An example would be remembering a few steps of instructions as you build something for the first time, but not remembering those steps a few months later when you attempt to build it again. Long-term memory is non-conscious and non-verbal long retention that occurs through rapid processing and with proper training can be nearly error free. As sensory inputs are introduced, long-term memory provides patterns and organization into meaningful bits and pieces. An example of long-term memory would be a chess master considering different patterns within the game rather than just a single move needing to happen in the moment (which would be working memory). Mastery on a topic occurs when information or practice moves from the working memory to the long-term memory phase. A master considers patterns and schema on certain topics rather than just viewing a task at face value. By supporting learner motivation and considering it in the design stages of a learning experience, the learner will have a pathway to achieving mastery on a given topic. Core motivation beliefs to consider are value, self-efficacy, attribution, and mood. The motivational actions of starting, persisting and putting in mental effort will lead to results in practice, testing, work, and fluency and ease.


2) Carefully consider the affordances and limitation of advanced learning technologies

The presentation highlighted the benefits of technology on learning such as providing affordable, reliable, customizable, and data-rich opportunities that can allow for systemic improvements such as fast piloting and enhanced learning capabilities (simulations, videos, and adaptive technology). Technology also provides possibilities for systematic improvements through processes to gather rich data beyond what an individual is capable of completing. Technology-based applications do have some limitations. For instance, it enables the scaling of poorly designed offerings, learners can lack motivation while using technology, expert human coaches are often still needed in skill development, and peer to peer support has mixed levels of success. However, based on the principles of how learning works, technology can be used as a tool to share and scale well designed offerings.


3) Use evidence to make progress

Dr. Saxberg presented the idea of cognitive task analysis (CTA), a process that identifies top performers in a given field, and through interviews - by tapping into one’s long term-memory and revealing tacit knowledge - creates a gold standard for success in that role. This allows for an expertise-based, rather than solely technical, understanding of what success looks like by identifying top skills, prior knowledge, and the role of context. CTA, which is commonly used in government and military workplaces, allows the learning designers and decision makers within a company or organization to understand the core principles for success, something that can often be missed in training programs. This type of research can support the development of more impactful learning opportunities for employees and trainees. Additionally, once an intervention is implemented, testing and modifications will ensure that the offering is best suited to support learners reach the next milestone in their training/professional development.


Dr. Saxberg’s presentation highlights the cyclical nature of learning science that centers learners’ needs and utilizes best learning practices and testing/evidence to ensure quality development opportunities that will have strong results on workplace skills and development. If you are interested in learning more, we encourage you to watch the recording of the full presentation.



by Sarah Rosenthal, Ed.M. (NLL Research Assistant)