Gary Luffman, a popular speaker at our recent workshop and networking event for members, gives his tips on using neuroscience to create brain friendly learning.

Neuroscience will not solve all your learning and development (L&D) challenges. Also, it is sensible to be wary of any claims that don’t seem to make sense, or don’t support already-proven theories or intuitive ideas you know work. However, neuroscience can—and does—offer valuable new insights into the learning process.

L&D is a cognitive process –  not an event, podcast, eLearning package etc. This mindset should be central to all elements of L&D if we want our learners to adjust, adapt and develop. So, with that in mind, here are some key things to remember when creating any type of learning resource.

Don’t drain the brain

The part of the brain associated with conscious, rational decision making (PFC) is a very limited resource in terms of the amount of information it can process. It is, unfortunately, also like a battery – the more it is used, the more its fuel levels are depleted.  It is very important to recognise this, and work smart and hard to convince our learners’ brains to give us their attention – and for long enough for things to ‘stick’, so habits are adjusted. So our key challenges are:

  1. Getting attention
  2. Holding on to it
  3. Changing habits

These are increasingly challenging to accomplish, but all possible. We can increase our success by drawing on insights from neuroscience to help structure both our design and delivery.

To get people’s attention we need to convince the brain’s processing gatekeeper/filter (called the Reticular Activating System) that the information is interesting and/or important. We can get a VIP pass by ensuring the content ticks the following boxes:

  • It’s based on need
  • Learners have a conscious, active choice
  • It’s personalised
  • There’s a challenge
  • It’s novel
  • There’s variety

Once you have people’s attention, holding onto it for long enough is essential. To achieve this, your learner’s’ emotional state (Amygdala) and reward (Dopamine) will be crucial.  This is known as RAD learning, a concise and useful model to consider in the L&D world. The model is not described here but I recommend finding out more about it. RAD learning: from Judy Willis is a great place to start.

Learning should be challenging but not stressful

In relation to the emotional element of the RAD model, we need to ensure our learners are in a state of relaxed alertness. This means making content and the overall experience emotive rather than dry or boring, but in a way that doesn’t leave learners anxious or stressed. Our learners need to feel safe and supported to be willing to explore and engage with content, let alone put themselves outside their comfort zones. Ensuring a focus on a positive, attainable future is important.

Pavlov’s dogs!

Dopamine has a wide range of roles and effects on humans, one of which is its relationship with reward and the expectation of it. You could also think of dopamine like a ‘save’ button. It can help the brain identify valuable information and actions that should be remembered, as they result in us getting something desirable (which could also mean avoiding something we don’t want).

We can encourage dopamine through:

  • Social activity
  • Physical activity
  • Achievement /feedback
  • Helping others
  • Humour

Re-wiring brains

Our brains are incredibly adaptable if we are willing to engage our attention, thinking and behaviour long enough. The underpinning mechanism that supports this adaptability is neuroplasticity. This is the brain’s ability to re-wire itself, to support what we do regularly – at the cost of things we have given less focus or practice to. In L&D terms we can increase learning transfer by:

  • Priming learners, ‘flipping’ the classroom
  • Doing less, but doing it really well
  • Staged repetition, or spaced learning
  • Deeper processing of information
  • Incorporation with existing concepts
  • Application
  • Practice (testing)
  • Consequences (getting something good or bad)

A useful structure for L&D projects

To help structure and incorporate these ideas, you may find our ADDE model valuable:

Architecture: Think about the structure, logistics, delivery mechanisms, the learner’s journey

Design: Consider your content, the learning journey, delivery resources

Delivery: Implementation of the L&D design

Embedding: Application and habituation

Key Takeaways:

  • Think of L&D as a cognitive process as well as a programme or event.
  • Pay attention to managing the cognitive ‘fuel tank’ and the emotional state – yours in the design and delivery stages and your learners in the delivery/embedding stages (think food/fuel, rest, breaks, variety)
  • Disrupt and challenge your own habituated thinking during design and delivery.
  • Design-in a balance of learning knowledge alongside practice ie not just listening to an ‘expert’ but actively doing something with the information/model etc.
  • Consider learners processing capacity when designing solutions – where possible aim to do less, well.
  • Design sufficient reflection time into the learning process for reflection and insight to occur.
  • Design reminders, repetition and reward into L&D activities
  • Use RAD learning to encourage engagement, retention and application

Gary Luffman is an Occupational Psychologist  & Director at Think Change Consulting

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