ELM’s Six Pillars of Neurolearning™ Design

Chances are that you’ve sat through your fair share of training—for better or for worse. In eLearning, it seems like you either remember the five-star, engaging, and impactful experiences or you remember the ones that fell flat, but rarely anything in between.

Neurolearning™ design is our secret sauce for creating those memorable-in-the-best-way learning experiences—a way to ensure the highest ROI for your learners. Beyond flashy graphics or a compelling story, it’s linking everything we know about how learners’ brains work to create an experience that engages and inspires. 

We call this combination of cognitive considerations our Six Pillars of Neurolearning™ Design. By laying the groundwork for each project, we maximize knowledge transfer and make the most of every eLearning interaction. These six pillars make up the ELM Learning philosophy that has transformed the way our clients think about training. Each pillar is crucial in putting the learner first, reframing content, and inspiring real change and five-star outcomes. 

1. Make Them Feel

You know you want to grab your learners’ attention from the very start of their experience. Now what do you do with it? At ELM, there’s a throughline question for every learning experience we design: Why should they care? Too often, training is developed through an organizational lens without thinking about the learner’s emotions or motivation. You could have training that looks beautiful, but without making learners feel anything, it’s practically destined to fail. 

We know that if relevance is what piques learners’ interest, empathy is what keeps them motivated to stay in it until the very end. Learners need to see themselves in the material and find meaning in the investment of their time and effort. It’s vital that we create characters, settings, and scenarios that cognitively set learners on the path to internalize the lesson because they’ve experienced content in an emotional way. 

You obviously want your learners to have a positive experience, but there’s more to it than just good vibes. A positive mood actually makes learning “stickier” for better recall. By inducing the release of the feel-good hormone serotonin, learning can activate the area of the brain responsible for cognition and recall. Your brain releases serotonin when it perceives a reward in exchange for a certain action, like earning a badge for completing a level or mastering a new topic. 

2. Create an Inclusive Space

If we can find out what makes our learners feel a connection, we can provide that stimulating content to get their brains in an optimal state to learn. Brains are efficient machines, and they will often bypass (read: disengage) from topics they don’t find particularly useful or content that precludes a personal purpose, which is why some training can be ineffective. By focusing on creating an inclusive space, we can ensure learners see themselves in the training. Graphics look like them; content explores their roles; they know how this training will benefit them. 

An inclusive environment ensures all learners are represented through visuals we intentionally design to embrace BIPOC, different ages, and a wide spectrum of abilities. We like to utilize elements like storytelling to help learners find a connection to the content and spark emotion. ELM’s learning architects are masters of deploying graphics, animation, music, and text to grab user attention, create a space where they feel understood, and deliver content in a totally connected way. 

3. Guide Their Experience

Engagement occurs when all of our senses are involved in the learning process. We also don’t want to distract learners or tempt them to pick up their phone. You can’t force engagement; instead, we design eLearning that draws learners in using specific elements like visual and auditory cues that guide users and entice them to see what comes next. Combining beautiful illustrations, animated gifs, stories, and metaphors creates a progressive learning experience, rather than a one-time training event. We use complementary colors, visual elements such as icons and shapes to direct the eye, and fonts that indicate the hierarchy of the material, making eLearning easier to follow.

When creating a course, we spend time working on the right tone, scripting courses that use language that speaks directly to the learner by using the second person (you) with a conversational tone. Still, we know that engaged learners are efficient learners, so an active voice and easily scannable bullets and phrases help guide eager users to the content they need the most. Our designers are students of multimedia design principles based on advances in learning research and know how to leverage tech trends with foundational principles to offer users the best of both worlds. Every design element is chosen intentionally to catch eyes, pique interest levels, and capture the hearts and minds of our learners.

4. Make It Bite-Sized

When it comes to Neurolearning™ design, restraint is an art form. A natural enthusiasm for content and the sheer spectrum of information can make it tempting to stuff every module full of stories, scenarios, and topics. Of course, we know that there is such a thing as TMI for any learning program. While you might have a lot of content to cover, it’s important to break it into digestible pieces that make sense for the learner to experience and absorb for better retention. For ELM’s Six Pillars of Neurolearning™ Design, that means more than just giving learners breaks or trying to shrink current content into shorter modules. We actually develop, design, and deliver content specifically for microlearning (also spelled “micro learning”).

The human brain can’t successfully retain information that isn’t directly connected to a task or used on a regular basis, so our learning designers carefully pull out the “nice-to-know” versus “need-to-know” details. We analyze your learners’ needs to determine what should be covered up front and immediately applied on the job and what can be delivered at the moment of need as tools or resources in a performance support system. This puts information we can’t maintain inside the brain into the outside world, easily accessed at any time it’s needed in an updatable format. We break down learning into these bite-sized pieces, and even extensive and complicated topics become immediately more digestible, accessible, and relevant. 

Breaking content into pieces also gives us the chance to build in breaks for reflection. Learners need time to reflect and digest, especially after their brains have received a lot of new information. Time for reflection and practice is what allows brains to direct focus and moves data from short-term recall into long-term memory. This pillar of design is based on the idea of cognitive load theory: the understanding that brains can only handle so much new information at a time. When doing familiar tasks, you can focus your attention on more than one thing and for a longer period of time. In contrast, when learning something new, your brain uses up more of its processing and has less to spare for other tasks and longer periods of attention. In short (pun intended), bite-sized, intentionally-spaced eLearning is the most effective way to deliver complex content and actually have learners retain that information for when it’s needed. 

5. Make It Relevant 

Our brains crave repetition and patterns, but they also love surprise and delight. It’s a delicate balance between familiar mastery and new ideas that creates learning experiences that prompt users to build their own mental links to the information as they go. Whenever possible, we tailor learning experiences to a learner’s personal role to ensure they receive relevant examples that show concepts being applied in a particular context. Examples are powerful in that they illustrate both instruction and, perhaps more importantly, rationale for vital decisions. 

Common misconceptions and mistakes are also important to our learning design. Learners bring in prior experience that might not always be appropriate for the topic at hand. These provide a great opportunity for learning as they provide the alternatives to the correct answer in a scenario. We can address these misconceptions with targeted feedback for more impact. 

Practice and decision-making are the core of learning. Decisions about what to do, when to act, and how to decide are the core skills of performing and problem solving. That’s why, rather than throwing information at learners and hoping it sticks, we inspire learners to practice and apply that knowledge in a meaningful and hyper-relevant way. 

Knowledge builds in and on itself—not in a linear fashion, but like a vast spider web, connecting and crossing until it’s finely woven and much stronger than just one thread of information. And, like a spider web, if we can weave something learners didn’t know together with something they were already comfortable with, it creates a stronger cognitive connection. A safe space for practice and instant feedback keeps learners engaged while building confidence and encouraging the final pillar of design: real action.

6. Spark Action

Our neurolearning design philosophy culminates in sparking action. Whether it’s proving their mastery in a mini-quiz, completing a discussion question with their colleagues, or even trying their skills in a role-playing scenario, action is an integral part of strengthening connections between learner and content. Doing so gives learners the opportunity to generate unique mental context for the knowledge to be embedded in long-term memory. 

Your business goals won’t be met by the ability to recite facts, but by making better decisions, taking the right actions, and putting best practices into motion. The old adage, “use it or lose it” is still true—according to the Forgetting Curve theory, learners will forget an average of 90% of what they have learned within the first month. That is, unless they use and apply it quickly, tapping into their intrinsic motivation and engagement when they experience immediate relevancy at work. 

There are a number of ways we spark action for learners to transfer what they know to the workplace:

  • Follow up an eLearning with a VILT experience that allows for facilitated practice and role play 
  • Create rubrics to support observation and evaluation of soft skills performed on the job 
  • Provide job aids, posters, or desktop wallpapers to: reinforce the steps of a framework, reference questions to ask to support a process or decision, or review a checklist of steps to complete
  • End every course with a call to action—a specific next step or reflection on how to change their behavior or thinking immediately. 

The Six Pillars of Neurolearning™ Design serve as the building blocks for a holistic approach to training. It’s all about engaging as many senses as possible, and creating experiences around the learner as an individual creates powerful learning opportunities that are as smart as they are beautiful. Ready to rebuild your eLearning with these pillars in mind? Contact us about your project and we’ll help you frame your training in a new way.