By Adam L. Hall
As we race through the information age at warp speeds, one interesting topic to consider is how our capacity to learn new things is affected by the vast amounts of information bombarding our brains at any given moment.
Many of us enjoy learning new things, and remain awestruck by the ever-increasing access to new sets of information; organized, collated, tagged and delivered at speeds once unthinkable.
Some of us are “forced” to learn new things – on the job training, or worse, compliance training (the bane of existence for many).
Increased competition for our attention leads to the necessity for instructional designers (the folks who create learning materials) to be more and more refined at their craft. Text-heavy PDFs and “death-by-powerpoint” don’t cut it these days. Video has made solid gains in the learning world, spurred in part by increased access to high speed bandwidth and ubiquitous access to video content through mobile apps such as YouTube.
So, questioning how, why, whether and when the learning brain learns is rather relevant these days, given the demand for learning materials to be as efficient and effective as possible.
This, of course, assumes that if we can watch how the brain learns, then we can use that information to build better learning…
Believe it or not, we can watch the brain learn. Whether we can build better learning depends on what we do with the information available and how we assimilate it into the development of more effective and efficient learning models.
For the better part of a century, we have known that the brain functions in part by giving off electrical impulses. These “brainwaves” can be detected, measured and analyzed using EEG (Electroencephalogram) equipment (let’s call them “headsets”). There are different types of brainwaves that resonate at different frequencies. When collected and analyzed together, different patterns of brainwave activity associate with different biometric indicators, such as attention, emotion and, yes, memory formation. We can look at a brain and see when information is being encoded into memory or when memory is being recalled. That’s pretty major. And, while memory formation and retrieval alone does not necessarily equal “learning”… it sure has a lot to do with it.
So, if we’ve established that we can watch the learning brain and document when important “learning things” are occurring, then it’s a pretty short leap to figuring out how instruction works. To oversimplify: if instruction is causing the learning brain to produce brainwaves associated with “learning things”, then “good”. If not, then “bad”.
Many of us can recall the boredom associated with studying our textbooks. You’d start reading a chapter and by the second paragraph, you’d be off in some other world. You “forced” yourself to pay attention. To focus. Back in the old days, information and methods of delivery were quite limited. Your textbook WAS your source, along with maybe your notes from class. Now, information is limitless. Methods to deliver information are myriad. With such abundance and ubiquity of information comes heightened expectations for assimilation into the mind. Knowledge is power! We all demand more knowledge, faster. We want to get rid of the noise, and get to the good stuff. Learning is no different.
Instructional designers can and should be using the learning brain to inform their efforts; not simply by measuring learning mastery through quizzes and tests, but by seeing what parts of their instruction trigger the brain, and what don’t. Such an iterative process will lead to lessons, courses, pedagogical approaches and learning modalities that teach learners faster – with the learner coming out the other side knowing more. Isn’t that what it’s all about?