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3 Brain science insights about adult learning

A long long time ago people believed that the Sun orbits the Earth. Some time ago people believed that light can only happen during day time. Not so long ago people believed that we only use around 10% of our brain capacity and that once a neuron dies, the brain loses it forever.

Geography and astronomy proved the people from long long time ago to be wrong. So did physics and the light bulb of Thomas Edison to the people from some time ago. And neuroscience placed the 10% usage of the brain right next to the other erroneous beliefs.

Although the brain is involved in almost all aspects of the good functioning of the human body, it is probably the organ we know least about. Neuroscience — the science studying the physical brain — is a rather young science. Neuroscientists have discovered that we definitely use more than 10% of your brain capacity, and that neural synapses (the connections between neurons) can get thicker if enough electrical impulses happen between two brain cells.

But even with the insights provided by cognitive science — the science studying the brain from a psychological point of view — there are still plenty of things we don't know about the human brain. We have to learn them.

Now let's go back a little to those thickening synapses. Each electrical impulse contributes to their growth, and every time we learn something new or use the already available knowledge, an electrical impulse happens. And the most important aspect of all is that this process doesn't stop at a certain age; it still happens in the brains of the oldest people. This is particularly important if we consider adult learning.

People don't stop learning after mastering walking and talking. Maybe adult learning is less intense than that of children, but it happens nonetheless. It's just different. Adults are more sophisticated and it's easier for them to be self-directed learners. They know how to identify what they need to learn, and the steps they need to take to achieve the new knowledge they want.

Even though every adult is different and the brains act differently during the learning process, there are some things that all adult learners have in common. If you're in any sort involved in designing courses for adults, you might want to tune in, as I'm about to go into three brain science insights that are true to all learners.

1. Emotions greatly affect the learning process

Positive emotions attract more positive emotions, while negative ones attract more of their kind.

According to Plutchik's theory, there are eight big categories of emotions: fear, anger, sadness, disgust on the negative spectrum, and happiness, trust, anticipation and surprise on the positive spectrum. Whichever of these emotions people experience before, during, or after the learning process, they will associate those emotions with it.

Stress is probably the most powerful barrier to learning, as it is usually triggered by one or more negative emotions. When adults are stressed — because they had a fight with their spouse, they have an important deadline coming fast and a lot of work to do, they made a stupid mistake in an important report, a coworker is giving them a hard time at work, or any other reason — they can't really focus. Their brains simply can't take in new information when it has to deal with more stringent negative emotions. When people can't focus, they can't be successful at learning.

The reasons for stress are many and they vary from one person to another. But they don't always have something to do with the learning materials. There's really nothing trainers and instructional designers can do to impede their learners to be stressed.

From stress to happiness

What they can do, however, is to control the learning environment and tie as many positive emotions to it.

An LMS can offer a secure place to learn, where mistakes don't have serious real-life consequences. When this happens, people tend to wind down, and try new ideas more easily.

Gamification techniques like getting points each time they know the right answer, earning a badge for mastering a certain skill, or seeing their name on a course completion certificate, make people happy, even though they may not consciously realize that.

By creating a safe learning environment and focusing on positive reinforcements, trainers can instill positive emotions in learners. This contributes to better retention rates and greater self-confidence to reaching mastery.

2. Intense focus lasts for up to 20 minutes

The brain is sensitive to an incredible amount of stimuli at any given moment. With so many things competing simultaneously for our attention, it's easy for us to lose focus.

Multi-tasking does not really happen. People can become better at switching tasks, but we can't really focus on more than one thing at once. Add the short attention span to the mix and sprinkle some interruptions on top, and you get the perfect recipe for average or less-than-average performance. This applies to any aspect of work, from the simplest tasks, to learning how to do the most complex ones.

The workplace — be it an office, a construction site, a factory, or any other establishment — is supposed to offer the perfect environment for employees to be more productive. Yet this doesn't really happen.

Where there are other people, there are distractions. Ad-hoc conversations, emails, meetings, outside noises — these can all interrupt employees when they are trying to focus on something. And even when distractions are minimal, people still can’t put too much brain power into one thing.

So what can instructional designers do to make the most out of this limited time of intense focus that learners have?

Less is more

Well, there are at least two aspects that are worth considering.

The first one would be to create courses that don’t overwhelm learners. Each learning material should have a pleasant layout, nice visual elements, and not too much text. And the most important thing of all is that each learning module or lesson should not require more than 20 minutes to get through.

Whether we’re talking about reading documentation, watching video tutorials, answering a quiz, or any other learning activity, learners should be able to do it in 20 minutes or less.

The other thing instructors can do to cater to the limited time of focus of learners is to control the learning environment so as to eliminate as many distractions as possible. If the training courses are face-to-face, employees should use a room dedicated to learning. If the courses are online, employees should be able to access them at the most convenient times, when distractions are few.

By creating micro learning modules and minimizing distractions, instructional designers help employees to better focus during their learning process.

3. Sleep is more than necessary

Active adults do a million different things each day. They are busy at work and they are busy in their private lives. There are so many things to be done, that sleep rarely gets a spot on a crowded to do list. But is has to be there.

When we sleep, we do much more than “recharge our batteries”. The brain is actually very active during our down-time phase. It does a lot of information sorting and rewiring of the neural network. After a learning session, this sorting and rewiring is very important for later retention rates.

Sleep is a necessary step during the learning process, even though it may not be an obvious one. Only after a good sleep do we become aware of all the new connections we made during yesterday’s learning.

So L&D professionals should keep in mind this need of the human brain and

Let learners sleep on it

After each session of training, and even after each new big concept, learners should have plenty of time for processing the new information. They literally need to sleep on it.

New knowledge must pass from the short-term memory to the long-term memory, and sleep is a requirement for this to happen.

What’s more, if the quality of sleep is not the best, people will have a hard time not only to settle on the things they learned recently, but also to focus on acquiring new knowledge. Sleep deprivation thus creates a vicious circle of a faulted learning process.

While trainers can’t control the sleep patterns of their learners, they can stress its importance and allow some time for sleep to happen before assessing the success of knowledge retention.

Keeping in mind these three brain science insights — that emotions affect learning, intense focus is limited, and sleep is very important — will help instructional designers create training courses that respond to the needs of learners.