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Learning technology: neuroscientific insights to make virtual learning work better

14th May 2019
Partner Head Heart + Brain
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virtual learning
Christopher Badzioch/iStock

Digital technology is making virtual learning easier than ever before, but in order to fully exploit the opportunities this presents, we first need to understand the neuroscience behind it to make sure we are designing training programmes in the right way. 

One way to capitalise on the science of how the brain learns is to use a variety of different ways to help learners make the most of the learning experience.

For example, we know that the brain retains information best when it arrives in small chunks, over a period of time and with opportunities for reflection and practice in between.

We also know that the brain likes to learn with others. That makes virtual learning programmes and webinars and related technology perfectly suited to effective learning. Webinars can mean that learners get maximum benefit from the time they put in.

Be clear about expectations

There are several considerations that make remote or virtual programmes work.

When designing such a programme, outline what’s expected of participants and instil the right mindset for getting the most out of the learning.

You could, for example, prepare participants to be responsible for their learning by asking them to select a sponsor from within their own organisation and including a Personal Learning Agreement, a contract between the learner and their manager or sponsor that helps them keep track of their progress and defines the support they require to apply the learning.

Attention spans

Various studies have demonstrated that our brains can only give something our full attention for less than about 20 minutes.

After that time, it’s less and less likely that we’ll retain information we’re presented with.

What happens when we lose and regain our attention?

What happens in the brain when we lose and then regain attention is governed by the two separate systems.

Dorsal attention network

There’s the dorsal attention network, located high in the brain, which is active when we chose to focus on things like goals or intentions.

So listening to the boss explain their vision for the new leadership behaviours and working out what it means for us is likely to be activating this system.

Ventral attention network

The second system is the ventral attention network. This directs attention to things coming in from our senses and is effectively a safety system, keeping us alert to potential danger.

The problem comes when the alerts are not central to our continued survival but relate to less critical matters - like a new email landing in the inbox and your phone going ping.

The two systems work together - the dorsal system gets a bit of a rest when the ventral system directs our attention elsewhere. This rest also gives the dorsal system a chance to refocus and notice what might have changed while it had been distracted.

Of course, all of this can happen in less than a second, sometimes without us even being aware we’ve switched focus.

What about the brain's braking system?

It’s likely that in a learning environment there is also another system which is active – the brain’s braking system. [PDF]

This inhibits our impulses, and whilst it’s useful in stopping us from flitting from one thing to the next, it tires us out. That’s another reason why taking frequent ‘brain breaks’ is important.

These features of attention have an impact on how our memory works. As we might expect, constantly flitting from one focus to another (as when we’re multitasking) has been shown to reduce our ability to retrieve information later on.

You should aim to divide learning into small, easily assimilated chunks to accommodate the brain’s 20-minute attention span.

In virtual programmes it’s therefore even more important to set some ground rules about attention and dissuade people from multitasking, such as doing their email whilst listening to the webinar.

One way of helping people focus is to require frequent input from participants and to keep the pace lively and interactive. Varying the content and even the webinar leader also helps.

Structuring virtual programmes

In our experience programmes which are virtual or which contain a mix of face-to-face or webinar type learning need to be designed specifically. Just putting a face-to-face programme online doesn’t work very well.

One way to structure a virtual learning or webinar-based event is to include three elements to each phase:

  • Knowledge
  • Processing
  • Application

Knowledge is either introduced in the workplace or the information is presented in a relevant context, perhaps in the form of a video, some reading, an interview with a client or colleague, a self-assessment test or a reflective process prompted by questions as mentioned above.

The processing stage begins when the group comes together to discuss the information, to think about the reasoning behind it and its potential application.

The third element - application, takes place in the workplace and is where the learning is applied and put into practice. (Take a look at the third article in this series for more information).

Delivering content

You should aim to divide learning into small, easily assimilated chunks to accommodate the brain’s 20-minute attention span:

  • Include multi-media messaging that engages multiple senses and increases neurological connections.
  • Maximise brain-based rewards by ensuring positive CORE (see our video for more on CORE) and personal rewards for learners
  • See if you can get the participants to connect with one another and agree the ways of interacting through clear, simple ground rules.
  • Vary the activities so the brain has a chance to refocus and reset. Ideally these new activities use different parts of the brain’s processing ability.

For example, if people have been sitting listening for a while then they’ll welcome a chance to do an activity like use a webinar white board or ask questions or reflect and write.

It’s easier to create a new behaviour than to change an old one.

You might also include on the learning platform an online library of tools, frameworks, videos and techniques tailored to the learners, enabling them to form a social learning community in which they can share their learning, successes and tips for applying the learning, thus tapping into the brain’s need for social connection.

Changing behaviour

The application of new learning involves convincing people to change their work habits.

Neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner estimates that humans act according to habit 70%-90% of the time, and are guided by deliberate mindful actions only 10%-30% of the time.

It’s also worth knowing that it’s easier to create a new behaviour than to change an old one.

So when designing a programme, make sure you include ways for participants to work out precisely which behaviours and habits will help them succeed. They are more likely to be successful when they:

  • Make the goal public. We like to be seen to keep our commitments.
  • Work with someone else on the new habit, like getting feedback from a buddy or asking a colleague for support.
  • Plan for what might derail them. Anticipating stumbling blocks makes them easier to overcome.
  • Build in rewards for each step towards success.

Making better use of technology

There is, even now, limited use being made of technology for trainers such as webinars and social learning platforms as an integral part of the learning methodology.

This is especially true for programmes involving more senior people. What’s more, the small number of virtual programmes that are being provided are typically under-supported. Webinars are more often used as short, one-off sessions rather than as a methodology to support on-going learning or to deliver programmes across geographies.

They are usually stand-alone initiatives with little follow-up or embedding.

However, when this technology is properly exploited, the benefits to learning are unarguable, as are the cost savings in travel and down time.

This article series contains many articles analysing learning from a neuroscience perspective. Want to read more? The full article series can be seen here.

Replies (4)

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By janemerton
20th Apr 2016 10:15

Hi Jan - great article. Many of the principles you outline here apply to face to face as well as to virtual learning, and we always try to focus on changing the media or mood to ensure that participants on our programmes are engaged and able to learn. We are looking very closely at how to deliver a new generation of blended learning that we call 'the journey' - this involves ensuring that learners see a programme not as an event, but a process that incorporates many access points. For instance, on one leadership programme we deliver, participants do extensive prework in terms of reading, researching and connecting with other learners before attending the face to face module, which contains as little 'input' as possible so that they can explore and discuss what information they have acquired. Our aim is not to shorten the face to face experience by 'dumping' information on people beforehand, but to enable richer, deeper discussions and activities around topics than before. Your work here on aspects of brain friendly learning certainly support this.

Jan Emerton

Thanks (2)
By willtrain
20th Apr 2016 10:39

Hi Jan
Such an interesting summary. Have an example for you.
If anyone has any doubt about the value of the findings from neuroscience and its impact on learning my suggestion is that they experiment first with their own learning. It can provide a more focused way of providing you with a learning context, known inputs and of course you can see exactly what you learning (or not).
For example I have been learning Spanish during the last 12 months with the purpose of being able to make conversation when in Spain last month. I wanted to go beyond my previous ability which was very simple 'command driven' Spanish such as asking for 2 glasses of wine. So I have reflected on the points made in article in relation to learning Spanish.

Having a clear goal and date on trip to Spanish made me use each day well. There was a time limit by which I wanted to achieve a certain level of mastery. It couldn't be put off. In addition, I had set the time limit so had ownership of it.

Doing an online quiz, particularly when a timer counter is running focused and held my attention. You can't do a such quiz and multi-task.
Getting instantaneous feedback held my attention. And when I hadn't got it 'right' there were plenty of ways of reflecting (revisiting the topic, seeing what the correct answer was, looking for explanation through forums, asking my Spanish teacher).

Technical information such as vocabulary, verbs, grammar rules were readily available through good internet sources along with exercises. No problem. What really added to this was Skype based one to ones with a Spanish teacher who was actually Spanish and who made regular trips to Spain. This provided me with current context, examples, feedback, ability to ask about things I hadn't understood through other resources. The sessions were one hour, quite intense, but in practice broken up into 10 minute slots through different types of interaction (some reading practice, some questions, some conversation etc). On a one to one basis I think these much shorter chunks were very effective.

I built in rewards along the way. Enjoying a bottle of a good Spanish wine or food when I had mastered a particular grammar item. The thrill of meeting up in a Spanish restaurant and conversing in Spanish provided a very high quality 'reward'. Even just redoing quizzes and seeing 100% right was a 'reward'.

So there is no doubt in my mind that the emerging findings from neuroscience are very relevant to L&D.

Thanks (2)
Replying to willtrain:
Shonette Laffy
By Shonette Laffy
20th Apr 2016 10:49

Great example - I'm also a keen learner of languages and agree that smaller chunks and having more context to your learning definitely helps. I might need to have some tapas for lunch now...

Thanks (0)
Replying to willtrain:
Jan Hills, Head Heart and Brain
By Jan Hills
25th Apr 2016 10:35

Brilliant example! Thank you

Thanks (0)