Top tips for using neurology to improve elearning

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As teachers and other learning professionals will often tell you, imparting information to students is one thing, but to get them to remember and then apply it is a whole different ball game. So how do we achieve this holy grail of learning? It all comes down to the way information is retrieved and processed.

The means of acquiring and processing information that the brain uses depend on how it is stimulated. This means that it’s important to recognise which brain mechanism is appropriate for the type of training you want to deliver. Here are some top tips for delivering a learning innovation that changes behaviour on a fast-acting, intuitive level:

1. Make them fail

We’re not saying set impossible challenges that will demotivate your learners and cause them to lose confidence; this would be counter-productive. Instead, set a challenge appropriate to the learning objectives and ability of your learners. Science writer Annie Murphie Paul has observed that learners need to solve problems on their own in order to embed the learning. Learning through problem solving will also build the synaptic structures necessary to transfer learning from the procedural (or automated) response, to the intuitive/emotional response. By interacting directly with the learning activity, learners will be jolted out of passivity, into the emotionally engaged learners you want them to be. Which brings us to our next tip…

2. Get emotional

The brain is incredibly efficient at filtering out extraneous information to focus on the job in hand. So good in fact, that we can often miss the most obvious cues. For a great example of this, check out this short video. So how do we take selective attention in to account when designing a learning intervention? The best way is to elicit an emotional response from your audience – tell a story, show a video, show photos. Dry facts won’t always resonate, but show a relevant image or story and it will embed.

3. Induce the ‘fear factor’

You can even increase this effect by evoking a negative emotional experience. Use this power of error to increase learner focus and engagement in a way that isn’t self-critical by asking learners to spot the mistakes of others. This approach is often easier than self-correction. With these ideas in mind, ask learners to interact by clicking on mistakes when they see someone committing them. Instilling the ‘fear factor’ can be a positive learning technique, as learners are more likely to remember what they have learnt if they can associate their errors with the memory of someone else correcting them. The resulting reaction will have a far greater chance mental imprinting and thus embedding the elearning. The reason emotional learning gets cognitive attention is because it ignores the semantic, entering directly instead in to the episodic memory centres where more complex and interwoven brain structures reside. The strong mental representations formed here result in faster emotional responses, rather than slower, rational ones. The end result? Lasting behavioural change.

4. Learn over time

Learning doesn’t happen overnight and neither does neural pathway building. The true measure of learning effectiveness is measured in the long term, not just the short. A student may pass an exam, but test them 2 or 3 months later and you’ll see they haven’t retained what they’ve learned. To have an impact, the neural pathways must become well trodden. On the biological level, this builds stronger links that will eventually override the previously ingrained and proceduralised responses that we’re trying to retrain. So when designing a learning intervention, plan for more frequent, smaller sessions – 20 minutes is ideal. Also, when planning the learning objectives for each of these sessions, bear in mind that the average human brain can only recall 5-6 independent items (this is why telephone numbers were initially designed to include only 6 digits).

5. Make it relevant

This may seem obvious, but it can so easily be over-looked, especially when the commercial imperative is to provide as much information as possible. If the learning is not meaningful and directly applicable, the brain will not encode it. Therefore always relate the content to your audience. By connecting the learning to the real world, the learner will be more likely to form a bond, and the information will be more likely to stick. A great way to transfer the information from the elearning environment to the working environment is to take a blended approach. Create a programme that utilises the full breadth of training tools available. A classroom component, and on the job activities can be especially useful when combined with elearning.

So there you have it; next time you’re planning your content for a course, consider the neuro-scientific basis for how we learn. By considering these tips in your instruction design, you are more likely to deliver training that is memorable and instils the desired behaviour change.

About the author

Tamar Welch - Instructional designer and Project lead

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