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The Science of Learning: 5 Things to Literally Keep in Mind

Posted on March 1, 2017 at 06:00 PM

While our technology changes at an incredible rate, the brain evolves slowly, allowing for the vast amount of existing cognitive-science research on how the brain takes in information. To create powerful learning experiences, it’s helpful to understand how the brain works. Translating research into meaningful, evidence-based practices, programs, and policies is crucial for learning and development professionals seeking to gain the most impact out of their endeavors.

The five methods by which the brain processes information below will put you on track to improve your own learning and development initiatives.

1. The Unconscious Mind Rules The Conscious Mind 

An experiment shows what happens when the conscious and unconscious battle it out. Seated in a chair, extend your dominant leg and make small clockwise circles with the foot. While continuing to perform this motion, with your dominant hand, draw the number six in the air with your index finger.

Try the experiment before reading further. Send this to your coworkers if they shoot you confused looks.

What happened? For most people, either their foot freezes, or it reverses direction while the hand completes the task. Why the confusion? Drawing the number six is a learned behavior that you can do automatically.  Making foot circles requires conscious thought and energy. This explains why it’s often difficult to pick up a new habit or learn a new behavior. Until the behavior becomes automatic, it requires more mental energy. And making a behavior automatic requires practice and repetition.

It's an effective instructional design strategy to use repetition to hardwire the answers into the mind of the learner, shifting the conscious act to the unconscious. Try designing multiple questions that test around the same concepts. This satisfies the dueling desire of the brain to stay with the familiar while also seeking out the new.

Here's an example from our eLearning course for a food industry client:

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2. The Brain Is Wired To Find Patterns

The brain is constantly on the hunt for patterns. Patterns help us make sense of the world around us. We form narratives and seek order to calm the chaos. What often separates experts from novices is a proficiency in recognizing patterns related to the job, even if finding the pattern is a subconscious act. The task of instructional designers is to uncover the critical patterns experts use and convert that into training for novices.

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The book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions provides an example. The author tells the story of firefighters responding to a call at a one-story house. Battling the blaze inside the burning home, the lieutenant had a gut feeling something wasn’t right. He ordered his crew out of the house and the moment they were out the door, the floor where they had just be standing collapsed.

Later analysis revealed that his premonition wasn’t just instinct; rather, the fire violated his unconscious pattern matching process. 1. The fire was very quiet, which was unusual, especially for a fire with so much heat. 2. The room was hotter than he would have expected for a small kitchen fire. When his unconscious patterns were interrupted, his brain released the stress hormone cortisol, which prompted him and his crew to leave the house, saving their lives.

Learning and development makes use of patterns in multiple ways. A flow chart, like the one above for a manufacturing client, organizes information that would be chaotic if in paragraph form. Using arrows and grouping information into logical patterns informs the brain how to interpret the flow of information.

3. Confusion Is Good For Learning

When possible, the brain will operate on autopilot. Although the brain weighs only about three pounds, it uses 20 percent of the body’s energy. It would be exhausting to apply conscious thought to all activity engaged in during the course of a day.

In order to truly learn something, you need to consciously think about it. The feeling of confusion propels us to learn. When the brain becomes confused, it receives a hit of dopamine, resulting in a sense of bewilderment that forces the brain to pay close attention.

Scenario-based learning uses confusion to aid learning. A module that allows the learner to explore and make their own decisions creates a learning environment that breeds confusion initially, but ultimately results in increased engagement and retention. A sample from Infection Prevention training for a medical client is below.

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4. Mirror Neurons Allow Us To Learn From Others

One of the best ways to learn something is by watching others engage in the process. This explains why people are increasingly turning to videos to teach them how to accomplish a task.

In fact, data published by Google revealed searches related to "how to" on YouTube are growing 70 percent year over year, and at the point the data was published, more than 100 million hours of how-to content had been watched in North America so far that year. And that was only May.

The reason that learning by watching others is effective is because of mirror neurons. When we read a story, or watch someone go through an experience, our brain activates in the same region as the person experiencing . Mirror neurons provide a key to understanding the behavior of others.

“We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”
- Giacomo Rizzolatti, neurophysiologist

This explains why storytelling is such a powerful way to learn. Through story, we are able to project ourselves into situations without having to actually experience them.  The sample below, from a Safety Training course, teaches a potentially dull subject matter in an engaging manner.

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5. Feelings Drive Behavior

The feeling brain is the driver of our actions while the thinking brain is the backseat observer. Long-standing traditions assume that logical, rational thought is the preeminent approach to learning and development, but recent neurobiological discoveries challenge these assumptions. Instead, research finds that feelings and emotions are essential for meaningful learning to occur in the brain, which is why the use of stories, metaphors, and engaging illustrations to illuminate technical ideas yields better results than slides loaded with information.

Consider an insight into how the brain handles choice:

“Have you ever struggled with a decision in which part of you felt one way and another part of you felt another? Perhaps you have experienced the powerful urge to indulge in a decadent slice of the aptly named devil’s food cake with sinfully rich cream filling. You were experiencing the competing conflicts of your three-part brain: the physical brain, which loves food because it knows that you can’t live without it; the emotional brain, which has learned so many past pleasurable emotions and memories involving cake; and lastly, the rational brain, which has its reasons for resisting but often succumbs to the urges and feelings of the other parts of the mind. Even though the rational brain understands the facts of the choice—that too much sugar, fat, and calories are unhealthy— all that matters is that eating cake is the quickest way to feel really good. Feeling trumps logic. Two out of your three brains have overruled your rational one. “
- Douglas Van Praet, Unconscious Branding

To create better learning experiences, recognize that people are largely being driven by their emotions. For example, when creating instructor-led training, understand that some people are going to be uncomfortable doing demonstrations in front of the group. To combat the fight or flight emotions, set the proper expectations to quiet the “lizard brain." Perhaps start with small group practice.

Understanding learner motivation is critical to the success of a learning initiative. A readiness assessment prior to training can inform you if learners have the proper motivation, and if not, where you should focus your time.

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Although it’s not possible to cover every facet of the science behind learning in a single article, if you subscribe to the Social Learning Blog you’ll be notified the next time we share information on improving learning outcomes.

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Shane Lueck

Having previously worked with Dashe as an independent consultant, Shane officially joined the team in 2017. He comes from an award-winning background in the magazine world, bringing his editorial and marketing knowledge to the office. Shane spent time studying international leadership in Cape Town, South Africa, fueling his passion for connecting people from various backgrounds to create a unique and high-level product. Shane received his M.A. in multicultural teaching and learning from the University of Minnesota, where he worked with the Office for Equity and Diversity’s education initiatives to create workshops designed to improve campus climate. When he’s not creating content, Shane gives into his wanderlust and spends time with his dog, Armani.

Learning Theory, Scenario Based learning, Storytelling, Repetition