Pharmaceutical Training: Read and Misunderstood

May 25, 2021

Reading is such a new ability in human evolutionary history that the existence of a “reading area” could not be specified in our genes[1]

Our brains are wonders of nature; the most powerful tools known to exist for processing multimodal inputs across complex scenarios and encoding these inputs into memory, skills formation and habit. Yet as powerful as they may be, somewhere along the path of human evolution the notion of reading showed up late to the evolutionary party. As a result, the human brain did not evolve with an innate functionality to read. Reading and interpreting textual language just did not make the user requirements specifications. Instead, we cobble together a multitude of capabilities within our brains to translate symbols into thoughts, ideas and concepts. This makes sense when you consider that language is a relatively recent discovery in the timeline of human existence. How recent? Let’s say that the human species became bipedal and developed something resembling the modern brain today at 6 a.m. If it is now 6 p.m., written language first began to appear in isolated patches of human civilization 43 seconds ago; or about the time you decided to read this well-crafted article.

As coincidence may have it, just what is the learning mode most frequently used within the pharmaceutical industry to influence human behavior, referred to as “training”? The answer: read and understand, or read and understood. This concept is so ingrained into our collective training approach that we have even conjoined the words “reading” and “understand”; as if one inevitably and naturally flows to the other. Maybe we need to join the two words, through repetition, to cause us to think our brains actually work this way. Unfortunately, they do not.

So how then do our brains work? How can we best leverage the innate capabilities of our minds to help us develop skills which lead to mastery of concepts, influence human behaviors and optimize performance in tasks associated with pharmaceutical manufacturing operations? How do we best use our brains to avoid costly mistakes while improving quality and driving technological improvements to our processes? What are the ultimate goals for training and education programs we build? As in all things, the answers lie in the questions. Did you see them?

Let’s start with the ultimate goal of training in the classical pharmaceutical environment. We want operators and laboratory staff to execute production and testing activities as close to right-the-first time, every time, as possible. To achieve this, operators and analysts need to both understand the underlying concepts governing the processes and procedures they are expected to execute and to master the psychomotor skills and behaviors necessary to operate within controlled environments consistently. For example, to achieve near flawless execution in an aseptic environment, operators must have a considerable understanding of aseptic behaviors and practice, sources of contamination, area classification, principles of sanitization and disinfection, particulate control, and unidirectional and horizontal laminar airflow, to name a few. Further, they must then learn how to apply these concepts to their daily tasks, requiring skillsets developed through iteration, in a real-world environment sensitive to technique and incompatible with errors. In time, knowledge and skill shape behaviors which then become habit.


The Education Piece: How Adults Learn Best

 There is certainly a place within foundational education for the written form, but written text alone does not promote learning in an effective and consistent manner. Learners obtain knowledge at vastly different rates and to various degrees of depth. High variability is not a characteristic compatible with the demands of pharmaceutical training programs. Adult learning principles[1]show us that adults learn best when educational sessions conform to the following characteristics:


Visual, Auditory, and Tactile Stimuli (Multi-modal)

Educational materials should include graphics(dynamic if possible), text, audio or verbal presentation, and where possible, some form of visual-spatial exercise or tactile manipulation.

Oriented Towards a Clear Goal

Learning objectives should govern all educational content, divided into digestible pieces such that each learning session is oriented to a clear goal or application.

Not Just Memorization, but “Why”

Learning the “why” explains the context behind principles and desired actions in a manner as to encourage higher order thinking skills. Rote memorization and basic comprehension — the typical extent of most pharmaceutical training — are only the two foundational levels of learning. To achieve critical thinking skills and mastery of subjects requires higher learning levels, including application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.[2]

Relatable, Understandable and Relevant

What’s in it for me? For adult learners, this criterion is a significant linch pin to enabling memory formation and knowledge retrieval processes in the adult brain. This is especially applicable for the workforce of the future, accustomed to information overload, fragmented data and distraction.

Enjoyable and Satisfying

Engagement is key to maintaining focus, necessary to instill information with enough saturation of content and across enough related topics to encourage higher order processes. If it’s not fun, nor satisfies some form of internal reward mechanism, adults simply will not progress through educational materials while maintaining mental engagement.

Self-directed Trial-and-error (Experiential)

Self-directed educational modalities require that training experiences are readily available on demand, whenever and wherever learners happen to have time for it. Experiential learning (learning by doing) is a leading model of contemporary adult learning based on neurological study. This concept provides for extending educational concepts into kinesthetic or physical action and is most effective when performed in a low risk environment, such as simulation, where errors can be anonymous and free of judgement or consequence.


Leveraging Our Brain’s Pre-Wired Functions

Experiential Learning

Since the dawn of time, humankind has been forced to learn, discern and interpret complex visual images, auditory prompts, sensations and smells to understand both threats and opportunities necessary for our survival. Quite simply, we learn by doing and can best recall events, situations and context when we make mistakes. Fire, hot, ouch! On-the-job training is the method most frequently used within the pharmaceutical environment — which is most closely associated with experiential learning — but this approach also carries with it some very real limitations. Mistakes cannot be tolerated in commercial environments; after all, that’s someone’s medicine we’re making! Not to mention if a classified environment is contaminated, this can have very real and lasting impact to product quality and utility of equipment and rooms. It is further limited by the attention and consistency of feedback given by the trainer. It is not a scalable solution, it is inefficient, and it does not promote self-directed learning.

Visualization and Spatial Memory

Various study data consistently indicate that memory formation (encoding and retrieval in particular) is vastly improved when information is visualized within a spatial-visual context, such as the memory palace concept. Memory palace formation is a technique whereby discreet pieces of information are tied to a mental or physical location. The mental process of memory formation requires encoding information in an organized scheme, otherwise we would not be able to retrieve, or recall, the information when we needed it. It is thought that by associating information with a physical or mental location, our minds are better able to organize these inputs in a manner to more quickly know where to retrieve it.

Psychomotor Effects

Going back to the theme of “we learn by doing,” executing tasks tied to the fundamental concepts being taught gives our brains the inputs it craves. It gives us a chance to take information, to see it in a three-dimensional environment that engages multiple senses and creates spatial-visual context for learning.


Putting It All Together

Currently, the only learning tool that can incorporate experiential learning, leverage visual-spatial queues and enable psychomotor engagement, all in an application that is compatible with self-directed trial-and-error experiential learning on demand is virtual reality (VR). In fact, clinical data[3]derived from use of VR in surgical training demonstrated that VR trained students performed gallbladder dissection procedures 29 percent faster than those trained through traditional methods alone and were six times less likely to make an error.

Virtuosi is the only VR educational tool, complete with a series of 31 technical courses and 18  VR interactive experiences, developed by leading subject matter experts specifically for the pharmaceutical industry. Your brain, and your company will thank you for it.

[1] The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy toAndragogy,Malcolm S. Knowles, 1970.

[2] Bloom’sTaxonomy.  Handbook I: Cognitive, Benjamin Bloom, 1956.

[3] Virtual reality training improved operatingroom performance: results of a randomized, double-blinded study.  Seymour NE, et al.