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The learning brain and why L&D professionals should care about it

People in the L&D industry know that creating everything related to a business training program is anything but a piece of cake. Instructional designers need so much more than the specific technical skills and subject matter knowledge.

They also need to market the training courses to employees, and before that, they should know how the human brain works during the learning process. Understanding learning as a process during which the brain physically changes its structure is the base on which every learning material should develop.

A few things about the learning brain

The brain is probably the most important organ in the human body. Yet it is the organ we know least about.

Neuroscientists — those smart people that study the brain — have made considerable progress with finding how the brain works. However, the road to getting to know all there is to know about the brain is a long one and the current progress represents just a few steps in it.

We know how the brain is structured — the reptilian brain, the limbic system and the cortex. We know about the lobes and their functions, and we know about the neurons and their connecting synapses, forming the gray matter and the white matter.

We know the details and we get the big picture. But there’s still a big question mark regarding the middle part, between the details and the big picture, or how exactly each part of the brain does what it does.

What we also know — but not exactly how it happens — is that learning makes the brain to restructure itself. During the learning process new neural connections are being created, others are getting stronger, yet others are getting weaker. The physical differences in the brain are not obvious for the naked eye, but they exist nonetheless.

Also, the learning information can move from the part of the brain responsible with the short-term memory to the one that’s all about long-term memory. That’s your target as a teacher: the long-term memory.

The information you want your trainees to learn will be processed by their brains and if everything goes according to plan, it will eventually get in their long-term memory.

Things that can get in the way of learning

But not everything goes according to plan, and there are plenty of factors that can negatively influence the information processing.

For example, if the concepts you include in a training course are complex and difficult, trainees may not catch all information thoroughly from the first try and much of it will get lost long before it could reach their short-term memory.

What’s more, if trainees are enrolled in your course just because they have to and they don’t consider your learning materials meaningful and/or aligned with their own learning objectives, they won’t pay much attention to anything you want to teach. Needless to say, their long-term memory won’t be bothered.

Another aspect that can hinder the learning process is a low quality representation of the new information that has to be learned. This is all about how well the new information connects with the already available knowledge of the learner. The more connections between new and already processed information, the easier the learning process and the faster the new information joins the long-term memory.

Last but not least, physiological factors can have their say in the success of the learning process. If the human body is sleep-deprived, stressed out, or plainly tired, the brain already has enough on its plate. In such situations dealing with new information that require plenty of memory fuel, may not pass the test of meaningfulness or comes in a bad form drops far down the To Do list of the brain.

The forgetting curve

As if the above obstacles to learning are not enough, let’s not forget that people naturally forget. Neural connections can get weakened, the same way they can get thicker.

The forgetting curve is a widely accepted hypothesis that memory retention declines over time. This hypothesis is based on the work of German psychologist Ebbinghaus, who pioneered the experimental study of memory. According to Ebbinghaus, forgetfulness depends on the strength of one’s memory, as well as on the amount of time that has passed since learning happened.

Humans tend to free up to half of their memory in a matter of days or weeks. So we forget tremendous amounts of information, especially if we don’t consciously review and recall what we learn.

While things may not be crystal clear about how we forget, and even about the forgetting curve, I doubt anyone can contradict the fact that we do forget many things throughout our lives even if we consciously and repeatedly review what we learn.

Meeting the needs of the learning brain

As a training course creator you know that simply creating courses is not enough. You have to design each course in such a way that you make it easy for trainees to absorb, retain and later recall the information they are learning. The only way to achieve this is to try to meet the needs of the learning brain as much as possible.

Here are a few best practices you could follow:

  1. Allocate plenty of time for the learning process to happen. When dealing with difficult new concepts learners need more time to process the information and create new connections with what they already know. So you should structure the learning materials as well as possible, let learners go through them at their own pace, more than once, and let them sleep on what they learn. Literally. A good night’s sleep is a critical part of the learning process. The brain doesn’t really sleep then; it is very active rewiring itself.
  2. Take some time at the beginning of each training course and each learning module to synthesize why those learning materials are important. How can this course or that module help an employee get better at their jobs and why should they care. If they can’t get a satisfactory answer to the “What’s in it for me?” question, they’ll only go with the course just because it’s required. In order to spark their interest and engage them in learning activities, you need to offer a good reason for them to follow your course from the very beginning.
  3. Put some thought in how you structure the learning materials. This can refer to the actual design of a page, with colors, fonts, images, videos and other visual elements, but also, and more importantly, to how you deliver a new piece of information. Always make reference to what is already learned and build new knowledge on top of the existing one, so trainees can make new connection easier.
  4. Repeat, repeat, and then repeat one more time. Time may lead to losses of memory, but time is an important ingredient in strengthening memory as well. New neural connections need some time to become strong, and new information needs some time to get in the long-term memory. So you need to deliver the same information over time. In other words, you need to master spaced repetition. When learners encounter the same piece of information over and over in their learning materials, they’ll better remember it.

Wrapping up

It’s not an easy job being a training course creator. Besides the subject matter knowledge and technical skills, you also need to put on the hat of a neuroscientist when designing. The few things we know about the human brain and how learning can physically change it makes it the most amazing organ in our body.

So if you at least be clear about the benefits of going through a certain course, put some thought into how you deliver new information, allow trainees to sleep on new concepts and master spaced repetition, you’ll meet some of the needs of the learning brain.

With more research into how the brain works and how learning affects it, there will be more questions answered, even more questions raised, and probably more learning needs to be met.