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Why you should consider neuroscience when creating e-learning courses

The human brain is probably the most complex mechanism in existence and performs amazing tasks 24/7. Every tiny piece of information about you is stored within the one hundred billion network of nerve cells in your brain.

Neuroscience is a truly fascinating area of study which makes it possible for us to understand how our brains control everything about us: our memories, imagination, thinking, feelings and learning — especially learning.

How important is neuroscience in e-learning?

Far too often instructional designers spend most of their time, when designing training, focused on the content they want learners to know. The best learning experience, however, is not just based on knowledge acquisition, but also on achieving mastery and the ability of employees to translate knowledge into business action. Understanding how the brain works and how people learn helps e-learning professionals develop the best training for business environments.

Learning changes the physical structure of the brain in two different ways: it creates new neuronal connections or it alters the existing connections, resulting in a constant organization and reorganization of the brain.

The brain's learning cycle

The learning cycle proposed by educator and biologist J. Zull in 2002 offers an over simplified but relevant picture of how different areas of the brain are engaged in the four stages of learning: gathering information, reflection, creation and active testing. By understanding the learning cycle you can actually get into your audience’s brains and create courses that support their needs.

Let's take these four stages one by one and see what actions can instructional designers take in order to support their learners through the entire learning cycle.

1. Gathering information

The brain is gathering information through its sensory cortices. Learners use all their senses to get information from the outside world — the training environment.

It may be difficult to convey smell or taste through a learning management system, but online courses can cover all the other senses more easily.

  • Touch. Many people learn by doing and busy professionals usually prefer to move or manipulate things / virtual objects rather than read through a 30-page document. Interactive games and simulations satisfy this preference, as well as the simple drag-and-drop actions.
  • Hearing. Some people prefer audio files and podcasts over any other method of learning.
  • Vision. This is by far the most important sense when it comes to gathering information from the training environment. Images, graphics and video (vision + hearing) grab the attention of the brain in the most efficient way.

To remember: Provide learning materials in more than one form.

2. Reflection

The first phase of the learning cycle usually gets the most attention in a typical business training program and indeed it is very important. But gathering information alone is not enough for learners to achieve mastery. They need time to process the new information.

The reflection phase makes use of the temporal lobe and is a very private activity. People need some time away to reflect upon what they are learning and this happens sometimes through sleep, or through other non-work non-learning activities.

To make sure learners stay focused, it's a good idea for them to be exposed to the same topic more than once. Stating the learning objectives throughout the course, presenting the main points of a lesson at its beginning, organizing that lesson around the learning objective and providing a summary once the lesson is over will help learners stay on tracks.

To remember: Repeat the learning information over and over again.

3. Creation

After processing all the new information, the brain reaches the phase of creating new neuronal connections and new meanings. This is a job for the prefrontal cortex.

Creation is also a private activity and it can happen anytime. That's why sometimes we get a brilliant idea related to work and what we learned yesterday or last week right after we wake up, during shower, while playing with the kids in the park or after a mid-day walk.

Each individual has an unique way of learning, so the time needed to get to the creation phase is different from one another. What is clear, however, is that all this is related to the level of expertise of people. An experienced employee will find it easy to process information he's familiar with to a certain degree, while a novice will have a harder time with the same concepts.

To remember: Design the course based on the learner's level of expertise.

4. Active testing

The final phase of the learning cycle engages the motor cortex, the part of the brain responsible with physical motion. Active learners love this part.

Basically, any action inspired by the new ideas from the creation phase can be regarded as active testing. Here are a few examples: going to the advanced but optional module of a certain topic, searching for more information on the web, talking to other people about that topic, listening to other opinions and explaining one's understandings, recalling a certain useful piece of information at a later time.

People are social animals and will always need the support of their community to evolve. Having conversations about what they don't understand or giving advice on subjects they are proficient in only supports the process of learning. Constructive feedback is also necessary for personal and professional improvement and offer learners the attention they deserve.

To remember: Support social interactions and provide feedback.


The ultimate goal of a learning experience is to support learners through the entire learning cycle. Sometimes training focuses just on the first phase — gathering needed information — but the other three phases are just as important if mastery is pursued.

Designing training courses based on neuroscience and the brain's natural ways of learning will help instructional designers deliver the best — and effective — learning experiences.

What is your take on neuroscience and how it can influence e-learning? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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