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How to Apply Brain Science to Online Learning

  • 5 Min Read

Applying brain science to online learning design can help organisations create more engaging learning and development experiences.

When it comes to learning and development in the workplace, a little bit of brain science can go a long way.

Brain science research includes insights from areas of study such as neuroscience, molecular biology, and cognitive psychology. Applied effectively, it can be a powerful influence that learning leaders can use to better understand and positively impact workplace learners—for example, tenets of behavioural science help us to better explain and predict employee behaviour.

But brain science can also be used practically—and tactically—to create more engaging learning experiences. Here are eight ways that brain science can be applied to online learning design.

Wacth this webinar to learn more about applying brain science to online learning


People’s minds tend to wander from a task at-hand after about 10 minutes. Luckily, mind-wandering is a natural part of learning. It helps people to connect-the-dots by shifting the brain away from its executive functions and into to the creative realm, and can be an effective technique for problem-solving. Design for mind-wandering in online learning by creating short chunks of content (10 minutes or less), regularly varying the content (switching between things like reading materials, discussion points, and audio-video feedback), and space content in such a way that learners can come and go from the learning experience at their leisure.

Peer learning

Corporate and online learning doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be a solitary endeavour. Being taught by a near-peer teacher who is a bit more experienced or skilled can be very beneficial for employees. Encourage them to pair up with learning partners online or meet up in-person if possible. Creating peer learning group opportunities, like group assignments or exercises, and encourage participation in online discussions.

Also, structure the content so learners change groups every so often. A big part of peer learning is the experience that different employees bring to the table. Get employees to share their experiences with each other and build up relationships and networks. It’s important in an online environment where it can be difficult to meet people.

Learn how to increase learner engagement with two-way video in Brightspace

Situated learning

Enable better learning with examples related to learners’ experiences so they can better understand new concepts. You need to know your target audience so you can use relatable examples. Encourage online reflection and discussion so real-life examples can be integrated into the experience. That will help you to create content that makes sense to different learners in your organisation that they can then apply to their own unique work situations.

Generative learning

Have learners create something new with what they learn. Being creative will help them to plant new information into their brains and keep it there. Encourage them to produce audio-video reflections about what they created and post them on a discussion thread or share them with peers in a blended learning environment. Include online quizzes with long and short-form text-based responses that allow learners to reinforce what they’ve learned. Get them to reflect on learning concepts by describing what they created, how they did it, and how it can be applied in their job.

Retrieval learning

Retrieval learning is often easier online than in the classroom. It involves training the brain to be able retrieve learning, not just store it. You can implement automation features into the learning experience using an online learner engagement platform whereby content or questions are sent to the learner to encourage information retrieval at the point of forgetting by allowing learners to practice as much as possible. Avoid high-stakes summative testing as situations that can lead to high-anxiety aren’t conducive to information retrieval and long-term learning stickiness.

Spaced learning

Spaced learning ties into retrieval. Use automation features online to release content in a spaced pattern, like alerts that bring learners back to an open quiz you created at an appropriate time along the learning path.

Interleaved learning

The human brain likes contrast. Interleave different learning concepts online by breaking up and contrasting content, and integrating various topics and games—gamification is a great way to interleave learning concepts. Students might feel confused at first, but they’re actually learning better.


Have learners put concepts together to synthesise learning and integrate it into their own experience and knowledge-base. Consider having them tell a story from their perspective—maybe a creative video where they go over learning concepts—where they show how learning content applies to the ‘big picture.’ It will help to contextualise the program for the learner and build on their existing mental models. Use discussion points and intersperse assignments to encourage reflection on and connection of concepts. Providing learners with audio and video feedback will help to reinforce the connection for them.

Through the existing advancements made in brain science, we can expand our own mental models of what makes for effective learning.  In building our own understanding of how brain science applies to online learning design, we can help our learners stretch and expand in their learning.



Medina, J. (2009). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press/Perseus Books Group.

Dweck, C. (2006).Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House

TED talk – The power of believing that you can improve

MIT and Learning: Integrated Digital and Open. Presentation at Masie Learn 2016, Orlando, Florida; by Sanjay Sarma and Ken Zolot

TED Studies: Neuroscience – Mapping and Manipulating the Mind

Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

Brain Games from National Geographic

Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning by P. Brown, H. Roediger III, M. McDaniel

Association for Talent Development – What Do You Know: About Brain Science and Adult


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