The science of learning: How brain research influences instructional design

When it comes to instructional design, we’re essentially trying to hack the human brain for maximum learning efficiency. This isn’t just about dumping information into learners’ laps and hoping it sticks; it’s about leveraging neuroscience to root that knowledge firmly in learners’ minds. Today, we’re slicing through the jargon to explore how spaced repetition, the testing effect, and multimedia learning principles can enhance your instructional design.

Understanding the science of learning

At its core, the science of learning delves into how we learn from a neurological standpoint. It’s where cognitive psychology, neurobiology, and education cross paths, offering a treasure trove of insights into the human learning process. According to the Deans for Impact (2015), this interdisciplinary field sheds light on the complex mechanisms behind learning, memory, and cognition, laying the groundwork for instructional designs that align with our brain’s natural processes.

The brain's role in learning

Our brain is not just an organ of thought; it’s the epicenter of learning, constantly forming and reforming neural connections in response to new experiences. As Immordino-Yang (2016) points out, emotions play a pivotal role in this process, highlighting the importance of creating emotionally engaging learning experiences. Furthermore, the concept of neuroplasticity—our brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout life—underscores the potential for lifelong learning (Zull, 2002).

How it impacts learning

Brain research tosses the old-school, cookie-cutter learning approach out the window, championing customised learning journeys tailored to individual quirks and preferences (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011). Grasping how the brain juggles attention, memory, and cognitive load can catapult the efficacy of your instructional designs, ensuring your learners soak up, cling to and deploy new info like never before.

Practical strategies for instructional design

Leveraging the insights from the science of learning, instructional designers can craft learning experiences that not only engage but truly resonate with learners. Here are practical strategies rooted in brain research to elevate your instructional design.

1. Embrace emotional engagement

Remember, learning is not just a cognitive process but an emotional one too. Incorporate storytelling, real-life scenarios and relevant problems to solve, creating a visceral connection with the content. This emotional engagement boosts retention and application of knowledge in real-world contexts.

Example in action: Picture kicking off an environmental conservation course not with dry stats, but with a heart-wrenching tale of a community staring down the barrel of deforestation. This emotional hook doesn’t just grab attention—it makes the learning stick.

2. Harness the power of neuroplasticity

Design learning experiences that encourage exploration, experimentation and mistake-making. By doing so, you’re not just teaching content; you’re facilitating the strengthening of neural connections, fostering a mindset of growth and continuous improvement.

Examples in action: In a coding course, instead of simply lecturing on programming concepts, you set up a sandbox environment where learners can experiment, code and debug in real-time. This hands-on approach encourages active learning and strengthens neural pathways associated with problem-solving and critical thinking.

3. Tailor learning paths

Use adaptive learning technologies to offer personalised learning experiences. By adjusting the content’s complexity and pace based on individual learner performance, you can ensure that each learner is challenged just enough to promote learning without causing cognitive overload.

Example in action: For a language learning app, you could leverage AI to assess learner proficiency and adaptively tailor the difficulty level of exercises. This ensures that learners remain in their optimal zone of proximal development, fostering continuous progress without frustration.

4. Space learning

Distribute learning over time with spaced repetition. This technique, supported by Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve, helps in consolidating memory and combatting the natural tendency to forget over time. Design your courses with intervals of review and practice, enhancing long-term retention.

In action: In a corporate training program, design follow-up quizzes and refresher modules to be accessed weeks after the initial training. This reinforces learning and aids in the retention of critical information over time.

5. Use multisensory learning

Engage multiple senses in the learning process. Incorporate visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic elements to enrich the learning experience. This multisensory approach caters to diverse learning styles and increases the chances of information being encoded into long-term memory.

In action: For a course on human anatomy, integrating interactive 3D models, videos of surgical procedures, and virtual reality simulations. This not only caters to different learning preferences but also provides a rich, immersive learning experience.

Wrap up

The science of learning opens up a world of possibilities for instructional design, bridging the gap between how we teach and how the brain learns. By applying these brain-based strategies, we can create learning experiences that are not only more effective but also more engaging and rewarding for learners. As instructional designers, our mission is to continuously explore, experiment, and evolve our practices in light of these insights, crafting educational experiences that resonate on a deeper level and stand the test of time.

So, as you design your next course or training program, remember the power of neuroscience. Let it guide your choices, from the structure of your content to the strategies you employ, ensuring that every learning experience you create is as impactful as it can be. The future of learning is here, and it’s brain-powered.

Deans for Impact. (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

Immordino-Yang, M. H.. (2016). Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T.. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-Based Teaching. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Zull, J. E.. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

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