Neurolearning Design for Powerful Learning Experiences

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A learning experience that’s not well-researched, doesn’t consider the audience, isn’t tested, and worst of all, is boring and predictable, will fall flat. We understand this tendency and like to consider ourselves methodology DJs in our approach. We combine insights from modern cognitive theory, adult learning theory, and design theory to create effective, intuitive, and appealing learning experiences. We call this NeurolearningTM Design.

At ELM, we look to models, research, and data for inspiration to help guide our creative concepts. Neurolearning Design is deceptively linear when written out mathematically, but we all know it’s never that simple. In reality, the process functions more like one of M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircases, with each element informing the other in a dynamic up, down, back and forth, and even sideways flow. 

To better explain Neurolearning Design, it’s important to break down each component and demonstrate the process in action with real-life customers.

Cognitive Neuroscience for Foundational Learning

Cognitive neuroscience specifically focuses on how the human brain supports action, affects decision making, language, perception, reasoning, and social processes. The advertising industry has been using cognitive learning science for decades to influence consumer behavior. It’s the reason you crave a Coke after watching a commercial for the brand. And, while some might argue that selling people a can of soda is not the same as training adult learners, we at ELM disagree. A learning experience is a product that learners must buy into if they are going to take in that information, understand it, remember it, and apply it. In short, you want your learners to crave your content just as much as they do their afternoon hit of caffeine.

Although we exist in a digital age that relies heavily on gimmicks and glitter, we can’t forget what cognitive neuroscience has proven to be true: People only make meaningful connections to what we’re selling them, if we can get them to feel. After the word feel I would put the word “something” or “emotions”, just to clarify what the feeling is.

Putting Intent Behind an Intentional Learning Experience

Intent is the process of developing creative ideas with a specific outcome in mind, so we can effectively communicate and sell it to a unique audience. The insights we gain from facts and data and from intimately knowing our audience’s environment and objectives, inform our creative decisions. We create a set of conclusions rooted in truth that we think of as distilled and intentional inspiration.

When we design with intent, we focus on including only those elements which improve the experience and chance of success for our specific learner. Here’s the equation: Observations of data lead to intent, intent leads to a concept, and that concept leads to execution.

Appealing Design for Engaging User Experience

From an educator’s perspective, appeal is often overlooked because it doesn’t seem practical. But learning experiences, as we’ve learned from cognitive neuroscience, should evoke delight and flow. This can be accomplished through appeal. Appeal is ultimately about putting learners in the right mental place, so their brains take in and retain as much as possible, and the learning experience is as effective as possible.

Of course, appeal is totally subjective; what’s attractive and appealing for one audience doesn’t mean it will resonate with another. That’s why cognitive neuroscience and intent must guide and inform appeal. Graphics aren’t just decorative, they have meaning and add value. Interactions that are designed with intent create positive outcomes for learners. We don’t use animation just to “wow” our audience. Every design element serves a higher purpose, and all of the elements work together to achieve an important learning outcome.

We’d like to walk you through a recent learning experience we designed for a customer, so you can see how all three components of Neurolearning Design rely on and inform the other.

Neurolearning Design in Action

Our client’s goal was to create a more positive feedback experience within the company.

Cognitive Neuroscience Phase

We started by researching studies on feedback. We learned from science that we should leave emotions out, stick to the facts, and just tell them what they’ve done as far as the impact on the organization.

Next, we looked into research on changing human behavior. The Adkar Model of Behavioral Change states that we must generate awareness about the change that needs to take place, create the desire to change, provide learners with the knowledge of how to change, give them the opportunity to demonstrate or practice the change in real life, and finally that we need to reinforce the change so learners don’t fall back into old behavior.

We had a framework for our course content: To teach managers how to give employees positive feedback using the Adkar Model.

Intent Phase

First, we needed to connect with our particular audience. In this phase, we needed to observe and collect data about the organization ourselves (since we were consulting in this case),) so that we could build our course with intention (conversely, the organization provides that data for us if we aren’t consulting). Through our methods we learned a few key issues:

  • People in the company had resigned based on conflicts with managers. 
  • Internal user analytics told us that most of the learners loved mobile learning. 
  • Employees also reported reluctance to interrupt their working day in order to take courses.

Based on the audience’s challenges, likes, dislikes, and motivations, we made a blueprint for our learning experience: a communication model to help managers organize their thoughts while giving feedback.

We wanted to test these solutions by building rapid prototypes before we got into designing for appeal. Once we found that something worked, we would design and build the course. If our test failed to provide the results we wanted, we would go back to our cognitive research and intent to dig deeper. Test your solution before execution!

Appeal Phase

Good news! Our prototype met our goals. Now we could move forward to designing the experience. What we knew about this audience and their environment was that they would be difficult to engage and delight, as they were in a negative space about feedback.

That meant the first task was to create a PR campaign around feedback so people would look at it more positively. For appeal, we used our storytelling principles to reframe feedback in order to make people more curious, excited, or even joyful at the possibility of positive feedback. We also created a story behind their new four-part feedback model: a mystic adventurer collecting magical powers that, when used correctly, made that character unstoppable!

As for the course, our learners were experiencing friction to learn, so to reduce that discomfort, we created an advertising campaign that we posted regularly on the company intranet, in the employees’ social feed. Users viewed colorful, engaging tips about positive feedback and wanted to click on each post for the full mobile-friendly module.

Managers also acted out scenarios with instructors, practicing the things they’d learned from the modules. We measured the success of the campaign based on anecdotal evidence, surveys, and social media marketing metrics, such as click-throughs and time spent on the page.

That’s how the Neurolearning Design process works. By applying the Neurolearning Design model of cognitive science, intent, and appeal, we created a custom learning experience that delighted our learners and changed the company culture.

Greg Kozera is the Director of Creative Learning Design here at ELM. He helps fortune 500’s implement effective digital learning strategies that help in creating outcomes that achieve business objectives. He also leads research & development at ELM, where we experiment with combining insights from modern cognitive theory and design theory to create learning experiences that aid in memory retention, positively affect learner outcomes, and dare we say also be entertaining, and intuitive, and appealing.