March 06, 2019
Neurolearning Design for Powerful Learning Experiences

Neurolearning Design for Powerful Learning Experiences

By: Greg Kozera

Sign up today for the Neurolearning Design LIVE webinar event on April 17th with Greg Kozera! Register here.

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. At ELM when we plan and design a course, we want it to kick-ass! 

We consider ourselves methodology DJs in our approach, in that we combine insights from modern cognitive theory, adult learning theory and design theory for creating effective, intuitive and appealing learning experiences. We call this NeurolearningTM Design.

Cognitive Neuroscience + Intent + Appeal = Neurolearning Design

All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason. ― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

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, as in the above subheading. 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 explain Neurolearning Design, we’ll break down each component, and then demonstrate the process in action with a recent customer.

Cognitive Neuroscience for Foundational Learning

Cognitive neuroscience is a rigorous understanding of 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. Some might argue that selling people a can of soda is not the same as training adult learners, but 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.

Although we exist in a digital age and the temptation is to rely on 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.

Putting Intent Behind an Intentional Learning Experience

Intent is the process of developing creative ideas with a specific outcome in mind so we can communicate and sell it to a unique audience. The insights we gain from facts and data, in other words, from intimately knowing our audience’s environment and objective, 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. Observations of data lead to intent, intent leads to a concept and that concept leads to execution.  

Appealing Design for Engaging User Experience

As educators, we often go right into the content in our course and call it a day. 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. We can do that 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.

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 designed with intent create 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.

Now that we’ve broken down all of the elements of Neurolearning Design, 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 customer’s goal was to create a more positive feedback experience within the company.

Cognitive Neuroscience Phase

We started by researching studies on feedback. What we learned from science is 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 or else they 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

But, wait! We weren’t done yet! We needed to connect with our particular audience. In this phase, we either must observe and collect data about the organization ourselves (if we’re consulting) so that we can build our course with intention, or the organization provides that data for us (if we aren’t consulting). In this case, we were consulting. We learned 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

Our prototype met our goals. Now we designed the experience. What we knew about this audience and their environment was 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. Now 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 we created an advertising campaign that we posted regularly on the company intranet, in the employees’ social feed. As for appeal, 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 on page. It was a success!

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

For our next post, we will break Neurolearning Design down into six basic tenets, to give you clear direction when building your own courses.


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.

Categories: Neurolearning

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