Neuroscience and learning

What exactly is it, and why should learning designers consider it?

The fields of neuroscience and learning together offer us a new way of thinking about learning design. Neuroscience, in broad terms, is the study of the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and sensory nerve cells, called neurons¹. Neuroscience brings together various disciplines, including psychology, biology, chemistry, and physics. Let’s take a look at how it connects to learning.

Neuroscience and learning

At its core, learning is change. The brain is extraordinarily adaptable. This adaptability is referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’². When we learn something new, the physical structure of the brain changes and results in its reorganisation. Learning is always happening -consciously and unconsciously³. This means that the brain’s structure is always changing. For deep, lasting learning that results in changed performance, we need to keep learners engaged to help them transfer their knowledge into action.

Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century” – Alfred Edward Perlman­4

How do we learn?
Babies are born with 100 billion brain cells and that stays relatively fixed over our lifespans4. What is not formed at birth, and continues to change throughout our lives, are the tens of thousands of connections that form between each one of these 100 billion neurons. These connections form neural networks, and their continual restructuring and change is known as neuroplasticity. Incredibly, we have neural networks for every object, person or situation we’ve ever encountered! And, when ideas and perceptions change because we we learn something new, our neural networks change in response physiologically.

So, why neuroscience?
If we understand how the brain works and changes, we can use this knowledge and understanding to improve learning5. We learn by connecting ideas and emotions, and these emotional connections help to unlock learning potential2. The existence of neural wiring, between the thinking and emotional centres of the brain, suggests that emotions can either enhance or inhibit the brain’s ability to learn3. In designing learning programmes, if we give learners the opportunity to create an emotional connection with the content, better learning takes place.

How do we consider neuroscience in learning?
The structure of the brain and the way it changes means that learning design must begin with what the learner knows3. When designing learning for novices, it is important for us to see the world through their eyes. When creating learning for experts, it is important to consider the complexity of their neural networks. Our learning designs needs to help learners make meaningful, emotional connections and tap into prior knowledge and experience. This is where storytelling, metaphors and analogies play a crucial role: they allow learners to make the connections needed for learning to take place (for more on storytelling in learning click here).

While online learning often plays a significant role in blended-learning solutions, it’s important to remember that people are wired to need social interactions and to make real connections with others. Learning happens in a social setting – we learn from and with others. There is great value in the interactions that take place among learners and between instructors and learners 3. This social interaction, and connecting with others, offers learners the opportunity to become emotionally engaged with the learning material, which means better learning takes place. Another thing to consider in designing learning is that while the brain needs to make connections, it also likes things that are new. Novelty helps the brain attend to a stimulus initially, then, once attended to, connections must be made for the information to take root.

Neuroscience offers the learning industry new information about how people learn. This is valuable for informing our learning designs. It’s imperative that we consider the role emotions play in learning, and the connections people make as they learn from and with others.


Neuroscience infographic

1. All Psychology Careers. Explore the process of neuroscience.

2. Neuroscience: Implications for education

3. The neuroscience of learning. The Maritz Institute White Paper, 2010

4. The neuroscience of learning & development. Pageup people white paper

5. The importance of neuroscience to education, C.L Kukk.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top