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Brain’s Rule! – How Understanding the Brain Can Improve Your Learning Content

May 19, 2011

Increasingly I find myself turning away from learning theories and looking to brain science to helBrain with Mousep me design engaging and effective learning content. Many of the established learning theories were conceived decades ago before the advent of the internet or even networked computers. Typically they were designed for teaching students in classroom environments over a period of weeks and months. Applying these theories to a 20-minute elearning module delivered solely by computer can be somewhat nonsensical.

Bell bottoms, boot cut or skinny-fit

Learning theories are like fashions – they come and go, whereas the way the brain processes and stores information is fixed, changing only with evolution. Admittedly, the brain is still our most mysterious organ and much of how it works we can only guess at. However, there have been great advances in our understanding of learning and memory that should have a huge impact on how we learn and teach others.

The book ‘Brain Rules’ by John Medina was brought to my attention over a year ago when luminaries from the elearning industry, including Donald Clark and Clive Shepherd, began blogging about it. It had an intriguing multi-media website and was written in language that could actually be understood! I bought myself a copy and a highly engaging and thought provoking read it is.

Medina has come up with 12 ‘rules’ about how the brain works, each based upon research that has been first published in peer-reviewed journals and then successfully replicated, sometimes dozens of times. Not all of his rules are directly of interest to us in the training industry so I’ll give you a quick run-down of some that are.

Rule 1: Exercise boosts brain power

Our brains developed when we lived on the plains, hunted for food and were hunted as food. This means we’re used to thinking on the move. It has been consistently found that as little as 30 minutes exercise two or three times a week substantially boosts brainpower. Indeed aerobic exercise just twice a week halves your risk of general dementia and cuts your risk of Alzheimer’s by an amazing 60 percent.

As individuals we can all put this into practice by exercising regularly. As training providers we can explain the benefits of exercise to our delegates and learners and encourage them to get active. In the classroom you could make more use of energisers and physical activities. Perhaps in the lunch break take delegates for a brisk walk.

Rule 3: Every brain is wired differently

Even in identical twins brought up in the same environment their brains will develop differently, both in terms of the areas they use to process and store information and their physical form. In the same way that as we grow, our bodies are distinct from one-another, so are our brains. Therefore it makes no sense to expect everyone to learn at the same rate.

In a classroom environment smaller group sizes will allow you to tailor the delivery of material. In elearning we can allow learners to shape or customise their learning to suit them. This could be as simple as allowing free navigation in a course, providing additional further reading or resources, and allowing learners to go through material multiple times.

Rule 4: We don’t pay attention to boring things

This seems like such a duh-obvious observation so why do we still churn out painfully dull presentations / workshops / elearning content? The more attention we pay to something the better we learn it and we pay attention to things that rouse our emotions. Unfortunately the brain also has a 10 minute cut-off point for paying attention. The brain cannot multi-task when it comes to paying attention. Interruptions have been shown to lead to a 50% increase in the time taken to complete a task and a 50% increase in errors.

Use stories, scenarios, drama and tension in the learning content you produce to grab learners’ attention. Ensure there is something that they can connect with emotionally every 10 minutes. This might be a related story, a shocking statistic, a surprising fact, or some relevant humour. Minimise interruptions. This can be a challenge with elearning where often people must learn at their desks. If the course includes audio I always recommend the learner use headphones as this helps to block out distractions.

Rule 6: Remember to repeat

We don’t learn well by cramming and are unlikely to commit something to long-term memory if we only encounter it once (unless it was a highly emotionally-charged event). In order to commit something to long-term memory we need to repeat it at spaced intervals.

 For the majority of elearning content we expect our learners to go through it once, pass the assessment (using their short-term memory) and remember the information forever. There is a question here about exactly which information we want learners to commit to long-term memory. It may suffice for them to know where to find the information when they need it. If you do need them to commit something to long-term memory, schedule practice and repetition at regular intervals.

Rule 9: Stimulate more of the senses

Our senses are designed to work together, so when they are combined in a learning environment (e.g. images paired with text), the brain pays more attention and encodes the memory more robustly.

Rule 10: Vision trumps all other senses

Our senses work together to build a picture in our mind of an event. Medina explains we don’t see with our eyes we see with our brains, or rather the picture they build based on the input of all of our senses. By stimulating more of the senses learning and retention is enhanced. Medina references the work of Richard Mayer. Mayer came up with a number of his own rules in how to use multi-media in elearning. We learn and remember best through pictures and moving animation and not the written or spoken word.

We pay lots of attention to colour, orientation and size and special attention to things that are moving. This makes sense – on the plains something that was moving could be either prey or predator. When developing elearning it therefore follows that we should use still images and animation where we can rather than just the spoken or written word. By providing narration over the animation or graphic we can further engage the senses and aid understanding and retention.

Medina’s other rules are equally interesting and the book is an entertaining and enlightening read. It’s refreshing for a book on brain science to be both weighty in its scientific basis and easy to read. I hope I’ve given you some ideas you might try yourself and indeed some food for thought.


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