I recently came across the article “Your Brain on Learning,” published on the Chief Learning Officer website, and thought it presented a unique and interesting perspective on elearning. In the training industry, we often talk about elearning within the context of trends and data that claim to know what learners want, while we leave out analyses of the biochemical systems that initiate the learning process in the first place.
Every decision we make, every word we read, and every test we take - all of those actions can be attributed to the chemical reactions happening in our brains. So it makes sense that studying these neural systems should be an integral part of instructional design! In this post, I will summarize and expand upon some of my key takeaways from the original article.
- “Professional learning can be broken into three key phases: learn, remember and do.”
It’s been shown time and time again that learners remember and understand concepts more thoroughly after they’ve had the chance to apply what they’ve learned in practice. It’s difficult to completely comprehend a concept if you’ve just been taught at. When building a training course, adding in periodic processing activities between lessons can help ensure learner retention.
For example, you can include a short write up activity after a lesson for the student to reflect on what they’ve just learned. Having to put the content of the lesson into their own words will demonstrate whether or not they fully understood the content. A few other options for processing activities are quizzes, providing a discussion board for learners to review the lesson with one another, or encouraging the learner to apply what they just learned within the actual product.
- “Information overload is real. The hippocampus part of the brain needs to process about every 15 minutes.”
Has this ever happened to you? You’re reading through an article or news story, and halfway down the page you realize that you didn’t even understand anything that you just read? You were seeing the words and recognizing their meaning, but nothing you read actually processed in your mind. Now you have to go back and re-read it all, hoping it sinks in this time. This happens all too often in online training courses, and it can frequently be attributed to the course being too long and too info-heavy for the brain to absorb it all at once.
Skilljar’s own studies have shown a clear link between lesson length and completion rates - with the overwhelming result being that the longer the course, the lower the completion rates. It makes sense too. Would you, as a learner, want to spend half an hour working through a course that you probably could have comprehended in half the time?
As the original article stated, there are chemical reactions that occur in the brain that actually cause information overload. After a certain point, the learners simply won’t retain information anymore. Keeping lessons under 15 minutes whenever possible, and including the previously mentioned processing activities to create neural pathways for new information is a good idea in order to encourage message retention.
- “When the hippocampus compares incoming sensory information with stored knowledge and the two match, the University of Michigan’s Biopsychology Program found the brain kicks out the new memory as duplicative.”
In other words, when you teach people a concept they already know (or somewhat know), their brain automatically tunes it out and doesn’t save the memory. This has two implications for instructional design.
The first is that you should be careful not to over-teach. Keep in mind that your learners might already understand the basic concepts of your product, especially if they’ve completed other courses on it. There's no reason for students to learn everything there is to know about your product on day one - break it up into several smaller and more digestible lessons. The second is that, if you do want to review information in your lesson, present the information in a new or novel way so that the learner’s brain doesn’t delete it right away.
Here’s an example of presenting information in a novel way to encourage message retention. In grade school, I always hated algebra, and as an adult I still do everything I can to avoid ever having to use it again. A big issue I had with algebra was memorizing all the formulas. Come test time, I just couldn’t remember what the formulas were, or which one was which - no matter how many times I reviewed it.
Finally, my second year of algebra, my teacher taught the class a song to remember the Quadratic Formula. Now, years later, I still remember it. I can’t recall any other formulas or equations that I was taught over the years - just the one that had a song. Even though I’d been taught the Quadratic Formula before, my brain only remembered it when it was presented in a novel way. This concept can easily apply to customer training courses.
If you’re going to review previously taught information, try presenting it in a new medium that wasn’t used before. For example, if your lesson was a video, present the review materials in an interactive game form. If your lesson was a text-heavy ebook or document, try reviewing it the content as a video instead.