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Using Brain Research to Design Better eLearning Courses: 7 Tips for Success


The brain is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve by obtaining new knowledge and skills, even before birth. Unfortunately, retaining information can be challenging, simply because instructors and course designers do not always use methods that facilitate remembering. The following seven points look at key principles from neuroscience research paired with tips that will allow course creators to achieve effective eLearning development.

How the Brain Learns Best   7 Rules to Improve Your eLearning Courses 01

1) Favor Recognition Over Recall

There are two different types of memory: recognition and recall. Recall requires full mental activity and is taxing on the memory, while recognition involves a much lower level of conscious effort. Effective eLearning development is often achieved when designers favor recall, such as by using easily accessible menus and visual imagery to aid memory. This way, learners aren't spending more time trying to remember what an icon represents, or how to navigate from one page or section of a course to another, than they do engaging in learning the material.

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2) Balance Emotion and Cognition

As the brain is both rational and emotional, it is important for course designers to create a balance between the two elements for effective eLearning development. Neurological studies have found that the limbic system, which is central for processing emotional reactions, shuts down when emotions run too high. In addition, a person whose rational center of emotional input is damaged, such as through trauma or injury, will struggle to make rational decisions; therefore, too little emotion also affects reasoning. These two examples demonstrate why a balance is so important to enable the brain to function properly and therefore allow knowledge to pass into long-term memory.

3) Help Learners to Avoid Stress and Fear When Learning

Fear impairs learning as it leads to amygdala activation, which interferes with prefrontal functional and shuts down exploration, making thinking more rigid. The negative form of stress (distress) has a similar effect on the brain: it triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which interferes with neural growth and, over a prolonged period, impairs a person’s ability to learn. Moreover, Caine & Caine, (1991) revealed that "when the brain stressess it undergoes several changes: it loses the ability to correctly interpret subtle clues from the environment; it loses some of its abilities to store and access information; it becomes more automatic and limited in its responses; it becomes less able to use higherorder thinking skills."

To avoid these effects, eLearning developers must make the course challenging, but not so much so as to be stressful or frustrating. The goal must be to achieve that delicate balance. Also adding warmth, empathy and fun to their courses will increase neuroplasticity and enhance learning. Positive emotions significantly influence students learning strategies, cognitive resources, motivation, and academic achievement. 

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4) Keep The Working Memory in Mind

The term “working memory” refers to the short term store of information. It has only a limited capacity, of around three to seven pieces, which the learner remembers for around 30 seconds. The mind has the ability to select, organize and integrate information, but new information will push out old. Therefore, the more information in a screen, the less students retain. 

Edelman and Harring have the following advice for applying this knowledge when creating a course:

  • Use a combination of visual and auditory techniques. Learners exert less cognitive effort when images are integrated with narration as opposed to pictures integrated with text.
  • Decrease distractions. Developers should eliminate any unnecessary material from courses including music, sound effects, animation, and background images.
  • Include cues. Increased text size, bold text, italics, and shaded or highlighted boxes all enable learners to pick out the most important information.
  • Display only key words. It is unnecessary to write out every spoken word and can be confusing to learners.

5) Include Content to Which Students Can Relate

The relevancy of a course should become obvious within the first five minutes by showing learners that it will address their concerns. The reason for this is that relevance plays a crucial role in cognition. When information is perceived as relevant, cognitive efforts significantly decrease, leading to much higher cognitive effects. In contrast, when facts and data have no relevance to a learner’s life, it makes it more difficult to form a connection in the mind. Caine and Caine (1991) explained it clearly: "the greater the extent to which what we learn is tied to personal, meaningful experiences, the greater and deeper our learning will be.” 

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6) Use Stories to Help Students Remember and Understand

Stories enable learners to more easily store information in the brain by helping the person to organize, remember, and tie the content together. Large amounts of information split into small units or digestible chunks is called event structure perception and helps add meaning to learning, as Susan M. Weinshenk explains in Neuro Web Design. This has implications for eLearning designers, who should create courses to access deeper parts of the learners’ brain, the hippocampus and amygdala, where the emotion and memory work together. If main points can be conveyed or at least reiterated by means of stories, with main characters and conflict, then attention and retention will be significantly increased.  

7) Plan Your Courses for 20 Minute Segments

The ideal amount of time for presentations is 20 minutes, found an experiment conducted by Maureen Murphy. The reason for this is retention: learners remember more and for longer when information is presented in shorter chunks, ideally 20 minutes with five-minute breaks between each section. For the most effective eLearning development, designers should introduce something completely different in the breaks such as an interactive activity, a discussion session, or at least something novel.

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