Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

3 July 2010

Brain science in design?

Clark @ 11:30 AM

The Learning Circuits Blog Big Question of the Month is “Does the discussion of “how the brain learns” impact your eLearning design?”  My answer is in several parts.

The short answer is “yes”, of course, because my PhD is in Cognitive Psychology (really, applied cognitive science), and I’ve looked at cognitive learning, behavioral learning, social constructivist learning, connectionist learning, even machine learning, looking for guidance about how to design better learning experiences.  And there is good guidance.  However, most of it comes from research on learning, not from neuroscience.

The longer answer has some caveats.  Some of the so-called brain science ranges from misguided to outright misleading.  Some of the ‘learning styles’ materials claim to be based in brain structure, but the evidence is suspect at best.  Similarly, some of the inferences from neural structures are taken inappropriately.  There’s quite a bit of excitement, and fortunately some light amidst the heat and smoke.  In short, there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

At the end of the day, the best guidance is still the combination of empirical results from research on how we learn, a ‘design research’ approach with iterative testing, and some inspiration in lieu of what still needs to be tested (e.g. engagement).  I think that we know a lot about designing effective learning, that is based in how our brains work, but few implications from the physiology of the brain.  As others have said, the implications at one layer of ‘architecture’ don’t necessarily imply higher levels of phenomena.  We’ve lots to learn yet about our brains.

As with so many other ‘snake oil’ issues, like multigenerational differences, learning styles, digital natives, etc, brain-based learning appears to be trying to sell you a program rather than a solution. Look for good research, not good marketing.  Caveat emptor!


  1. Why do you believe that ‘Learning Styles’ is a ‘snake oil issue’? What’s your definition of Learning Styles?

    Comment by Jennifer — 4 July 2010 @ 2:35 AM

  2. Jennifer, my previous posts on the topic provide some insight:

    My first tirade

    Pointing to Daniel Willingham’s views

    Looking for the upside

    A recent take (with a bit of whimsy at the end)

    Hope this helps!

    Comment by Clark — 4 July 2010 @ 9:27 AM

  3. Hi Clark
    I’ve enjoyed your comments and have gone back through the listing of your posts, and Professor Willingham’s video. Much of what you said echoes the results of Pashler’s recent research. (Glenn, 2010) You in fact mention his research in your May2, 2010 blog. So how do we apply Pashler’s conclusion, that for any given lesson one instructional technique seems to be optimal for all types of students (A7), to the Learning Circuit Blog’s question about tailoring eLearning to suit brain learning? Most especially how do teachers who don’t have any great depth of understanding in cognitive psychology adapt? We’ve been flooded with articles about learning styles and multiple intelligences which Pashler, you, Willingham and others seem to dispute. If that is in question how are we to dive into Cognitive Information Processing Theory, Brain Development, Differentiation and Synaptic Pruning, etc.?

    Perhaps the answer lies, and please forgive a novice in Cognitive Psychology for, perhaps, butchering an understanding of this term, in this idea of metacognition: thinking about thinking. In our eLearning adventures is it better to try and teach to the content, teach in a way that corresponds to a particular understanding of brain activity, or rather, teach the student to think about how they learn? Do we “better the odds” by taking some time to make students aware of their own ability to assay their progress, or lack of it, and make adjustments, either pro- or retroactively?

    Glenn, D. (2010). Customized teaching fails a test: Instruction can’t be matched to learning style, study finds. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 56(17), A1, A17-A18.

    Comment by Brad — 8 July 2010 @ 1:44 PM

  4. Brad, I think the short answer is “use the best pedagogy and the right tool for the job”. That is, not adapting to the individual, but creating the best learning experience we can overall. We can adapt instruction based upon what people demonstrate about what they know, but the instruments to assess how people differ as learner are suspect, and similarly there’s no currently valid body of evidence that adapting based upon learner characteristics works. There are valid results (e.g. the learner’s epistemology), but they tend to be around individual aspects, and it’d be more useful if we could compare them, focus on the high leverage ones, etc.

    I actually think that we will be able to adapt instruction to the learner, but we need independently validated instruments, and then a serious body of research. For instance, I think it’s plausible that we’ll accommodate a learner’s style while they’re anxious and then challenge (at least, for any malleable factor) with support to develop learner ability. Among other things. Unfortunately, it takes a fairly large effort to attempt this. I was leading a project doing this a decade ago, which ended prematurely. We’ll see if anyone will pick up the opportunity, with the systems capability we now possess. If it’s not malleable, we might provide scaffolding or support. But at this point it’s largely (informed) speculation.

    And I’m a big fan of helping the learner know their own characteristics (with the caveat about instruments, above). I recommend making ‘learn to learn’ explicit, assess it, and develop it (I reckon it’s the best investment an organization can make for long term viability), but do not see enough of this. Fingers crossed.

    Comment by Clark — 8 July 2010 @ 3:07 PM

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