Last reviewed 19 June 2019

Understanding how people, particularly adults, learn is an essential requirement for all L&D professionals. Attention is increasingly being given to neuroscience and how the findings arising from empirical research can be used in helping people to learn effectively. In this article, Judith Christian-Carter, takes a look at some of these findings and what they mean to all learning professionals.

There are two main problems to understanding how people learn. The first problem is that the science of learning relies heavily on theories, lots of them! Theories are not facts and what they tell us has not been proven. This does not mean that learning theories are irrelevant, but they do need to be used carefully, mainly as useful pointers when designing and delivering learning.

The second problem has arisen from the first problem, which is, over a period of many years, the creation of numerous, commonly used models relating to learning design and delivery, for example learning styles, none of which is proven and most of which are gross oversimplifications of the learning theory that underpins them. The application of these “learning myths” has not only set-back people’s learning but has also served to discredit Learning and Development (L&D) as a profession. In recent years, the voices of the dissenting minority have been listened to and, as a result, many of these models have been critiqued properly and found to be wanting. A good example is the myth of learning styles, where numerous models abound just of this one concept and which, finally, have all been debunked. While in many ways this is a good thing, it also has left quite a few learning designers and deliverers somewhat rudderless in ever increasing choppy seas; not including all those who remain in denial!

Aiding an understanding of learning

When people have held on to a view or belief for a long time, it is often disconcerting for many to discover that what they thought was correct and useful is, in fact, completely the opposite. Leaving them in the lurch with no support or alternative suggestions is not acceptable. This is where neuroscience can come into play, because the research being undertaken into it has already provided new perspectives on how to improve the design and delivery of learning.

What is neuroscience?

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system and brain. It is a multidisciplinary branch of biology, in that it combines physiology, anatomy, molecular biology, developmental biology, cytology, mathematical modelling and psychology. Neuroscience now includes imaging of sensory, motor and cognitive tasks in the brain.

Before neuroscience became of interest to some L&D professionals, the science of learning was rooted mainly in the behavioural sciences, such as education and psychology, and the hypothetical constructs that these produced. With research that focuses specifically on the brain, these hypothetical constructs can now be either validated or disproved.

The volume and depth of neuroscience research in recent years shows a significant reciprocal relationship between brain function and the environments in which people behave. For example, “neuroscience research confirms that learning starts when a person’s brain processes information. This information is absorbed through the senses, processed to the different sensory lobes at the back of the brain, and then processed to the expressive centre of the frontal lobes and organised in neural pathways. All people have a unique genetic coding that influences a genetic predisposition toward which lobes, hemispheres, and senses will dominate when processing information.” (Vermeleun, 2016).

Why is neuroscience important?

As most L&D professionals know, a person’s behaviour can affect greatly their ability to learn. The ability to retain knowledge, to transfer knowledge to the workplace, to be creative and to solve problems; all rely on a fully working brain and the willingness to adopt new behaviours. Neuroscience is important because it helps L&D professionals to understand how people learn and how they can change their behaviour in the workplace.

Because people have different preferences, L&D functions need to design learning experiences and learning environments that are aligned with how the human mind learns. Such an approach should not be confused with learning styles though, as learning preferences are far more complex and quite different.

The other application of the findings from neuroscience research is that when a person understands something, the neural pathway that was created in the process needs to be reinforced if the pathway is to become permanent, as well as enhancing effective memory and learning. However, this reinforcement is often compromised by factors such as a sleep, stress, diet, skills, mind-set, movement and the physical environment, all of which can impact negatively or positively on how people process information and their brains learn. It is knowing how the brain functions which is the significant factor and by aligning learning provision with it will ultimately increase productivity, drive more sales and enhance wellness.

The implications for L&D professionals

As a result of current research, L&D professionals now have the means to acquire a far more thorough understanding of the science behind learning and memory. In particular:

  • the biological processes involved in learning

  • the relationship between the brain’s hemispheres and sensory dominance

  • the impact on cognitive control

  • the dynamics of mental flexibility

  • the drivers which impact on personal motivation, and social and emotional learning.

The insight that neuroscience has already provided the field of adult learning should not be underestimated. “Neuroscience proves that the brain has unlimited learning potential. … (these insights) validate learning as one of the most essential ingredients for improving the performance of the workforce, improving productivity, and impacting the bottom line in profound ways.” (Vermeleun, 2016). Therefore, for L&D professionals to ignore the findings from neuroscience research would be very short-sighted indeed.

The implications for learning

For people to adopt new behaviours, they first need to adopt new habits. New habits are not going to be created by someone attending a one or two-day course. Creating new habits takes time, which means that learning needs to be more of a process so new habits can be embedded over a period of time so that new behaviours can be adopted.

Traditional learning is where someone is told what someone else wants them to know and then the former is expected to transfer that knowledge into the workplace. Neuroscience shows that people are far more motivated to change their behaviour and to adopt new ways of working when they have the insight from themselves. Creating insight requires a very different approach to delivering information. The information needs to be put in context for the learner. The learner then needs help to experience for themselves their new understanding followed by helping them to think about how they can apply their new understanding to their own role or their job.

Neuroscience indicates that a different way of designing and delivering learning is required. The emphasis now needs to be on how to get people’s attention and how they can retain what they have learned. Engagement is essential to applying what has been learned. If people understand what their learning means in practical terms to their job, have clear goals about what to do with their learning and get a sense of reward for adopting new behaviours, then what they have learned is far more likely to stick.