SHIFT's eLearning Blog

Our blog provides the best practices, tips, and inspiration for corporate training, instructional design, eLearning and mLearning.

To visit the Spanish blog, click here
    All Posts

    How the Brain Learns—A Super Simple Explanation for eLearning Professionals

    In his book, The Art of Changing the Brain, Dr. James Zull , notably suggested how David Kolb's famous four-phase model of the learning cycle can be mapped into four major brain processes. He believed that better understanding the learning processes that occurs in the brain encourages a more flexible approach to learning. It does, by extension, help us become better eLearning developers and learners. After all, it's what's going on in the learners' brains that matters the most. 

    To grasp Zull's suggestion, you have to know first the four stages of Kolb's learning cycle. Here they are:

    • Concrete Experience: This is when learners encounter a new learning experience 
    • Reflective Observation: Learners reflect on the experience 
    • Abstract Conceptualization: Think/Study (learn from the experience)
    • Active Experimentation: Applying and trying out what was learned 

    Note that this is a recurrent four-stage process which, according to Dr. Zull, can be mapped into four differentiated brain processes. Here's an simple, biological, and clear overview of learning and the brain:

    how learning happens

    Process One: Get Information

    The information-gathering part of the cycle engages the sensory cortices--the outer layer of our cerebral cortex that gets input from the outside of world of experience. It is through these cortices that we see, hear, touch, position, smell and taste. They basically record concrete experiences, or the raw materials for learning, in the brain. 

    Process Two: Make Meaning

    All these new bits of data received from the sensory cortex flow toward the association regions in the back of the brain, where they start combining to produce a meaningful concept. Basically, making meaning out of raw information through reflection is the gist of this process. If we can find meaning in the subject being learned, the information can move into the working memory. It's the same mechanism responsible when a solution to a complex problem suddenly occurred. While it may seem somewhat mysterious, there is something concrete going on inside your brain while your creative juices start to flow. 

    First off, reflection needs time and space to happen. Without these, it is virtually impossible for learners to digest, search for connections (consciously or not), and integrate information already received. 

    This is why it's so important to carefully bake reflection into the eLearning materials you design. And you can significantly improve reflection by minding the amount of information and pace of delivering such information. It will give students enough time to reflect on the material and eventually make meaning out of it. 

    Process Three: Form Abstractions = Create

    This executive brain process occurs when the prefrontal integrtative cortex is fully engaged. The learner moves past receiving and absorbing information and is now ready to create new knowledge, make relationships and form abstractions. Thus the learner starts making meaning in his or her own way, converting from being a receiver of knowledge to a creators of knowledge.

    In Zull's words, this very process of creating abstractions should encourage us to “trust the brain to think,” to let learners learn through their natural processes. Basically, we should encourage the creation of knowledge rather than passive content consumption; this will result in longer lasting learning (Richland, Bjork, Finley & Linn, 2005).

    Process Four: Active Testing

    Active testing or trying out what you have learned involves the motor cortex. It's that part of the brain that coverts the abstract (mental ideas) into action (physical events). After the brain has interpreted experience through reflection and built meaning, at this point now, the brain uses these concepts created as guides for active testing or experimentation.

    Active testing can manifest in several ways such as reading another book related to the subject, explaining or discussing a previous lesson with a peer, searching topics online related to the lesson, seeking out opinions from people who know more about the subject, and putting to practice what was learned back on the job. 

    Learning is an actual, recurrent process that occurs inside the brain. There's nothing mysterious about it. In fact, if you dig deep enough to understand the basics of how the brain learns, you'll be able to dramatically increase the effectiveness of your material. Grab whatever book you can on the subject. However, keeping in mind these four processes is a good start. If we as eLearning professionals hope for changing behavior and performance, a true completion of the cycle is needed.

    Check out this visual representation, which summarizes this process clearly. 


    The Neuroscience of Learning: A New Paradigm for Corporate Education. THE MARITZ INSTITUTE WHITE PAPER. May 2010

    elearning ebook

    Click me
    Karla Gutierrez
    Karla Gutierrez
    Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

    Related Posts

    The Science Behind What Makes an eLearning Design Effective

    Let's get real about design—sure, we all want our courses to look good. It feels great to pour our hearts into making something that catches the eye. But here's the thing: if your slick design isn't also crystal clear and easy to use, it's like a sports car with no engine. Looks great, but will it get you where you need to go? Nope. You know the drill. You click into a course full of excitement, only to get lost in flashy features that make it hard to find the actual content. Or maybe the text is so tiny or the colors so jarring that you're squinting two minutes in. Frustrating, right? That's why nailing eLearning design is more science than art. It's about knowing what makes your learners tick, what draws them in, and what drives the message home so that it sticks. Get this right, and you're not just sharing information; you're creating a learning experience that could change the way they see the world. Sounds powerful, doesn't it? That's because it is.

    Unlocking Learner Engagement: Psychological Techniques for eLearning Success

    Have you ever wondered why big brands pour so much money into market research before launching a single product? It's not just a high-stakes game of guesswork. Imagine this: a brand skips the research and dives headfirst into creating something. Sounds bold, right? But it's also a recipe for disaster. Here's the thing—brands exist for their customers. They're not just creating random products; they're crafting experiences tailored to what their customers crave, wrapped up in an irresistible package that delights the senses. Now, think about your role as an eLearning designer. It's not all that different, is it? Your mission is to craft learning experiences that pack a punch, sure, but they've also got to be eye candy for your learners. After all, you want them to enjoy the journey with you, to be engaged and eager for more.

    10 Golden Rules for eLearning Course Design Mastery

    Let's face it – nobody gets excited about a grainy movie or sticks with a book that's a minefield of typos. It's a no-brainer, right? So, let's talk about your eLearning courses. Shouldn't the same rules of engagement apply? Consider this: a course that's a maze of bad design, confusing navigation, or just crammed with too much info is like that movie or book – it’s going to turn your learners off. And we all know what happens next – they check out, and not in the 'mission accomplished' kind of way. Now, think about your team. They’re curious, they’re hungry for knowledge, but let's be real – no one's keen on drudging through dull, time-consuming content that feels like a throwback to school days. The modern workforce wants learning that’s not just informative, but also engaging and fits into their fast-paced lifestyle. That's the puzzle we're solving together.