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Insight 30/10/2023

Applying the neuroscience and psychology of learning to edtech

By Dr Richard Churches

Dr Richard Churches is Global Head of Research at Education Development Trust and the author of Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying Brain Science in the Classroom. He also presented the GESS Awards again this year as the onstage host for the awards.

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, technology has become an integral part of the learning process. Whether in traditional classrooms or virtual environments it can be easy to forget that the brain is always there – doing what it has done for millions of years.  If we are going to make instruction design as effective as possible and embrace the full potential of edtech to enhance learning experiences, it is important for us to understand how the brain functions and apply principles from the biology of learning and cognitive psychology to create effective learning materials.  

Although the biology of learning is never going to provide instructional designers with lesson plans or exact courses of action, in the same way that architects use physics to underpin their creative designs, the biology of learning can provide a foundation for the way in which pedagogy is constructed. 

In this article, we will explore key principles of how we learn and discuss approaches to consider when designing edtech instructional content.  This is a very extensive topic, and we are only going to be able to touch on a few big ideas here.


1. Engagement: capturing the brain's attention

The brain is naturally drawn to novel and unusual stimuli. This phenomenon is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, where creatures that failed to pay attention to new or unusual things often faced dire consequences. You might say that all the creatures that did not pay attention to novel or unusual things probably got eaten! In the context of edtech instructional design, it is crucial to create content that engages learners by presenting information in a salient and attention-grabbing manner. Engaging content not only captures learners' interest but also primes the brain for effective learning.


2. Frequent opportunities for reward

The brain is wired to seek immediate rewards. Throughout evolution, creatures that experienced feelings of reward through moment-to-moment problem-solving, such as finding food or shelter, gained a significant survival advantage. This principle can be harnessed in edtech instructional design by incorporating elements that provide learners with a sense of reward as they progress through the material. Whether through gamification, achievement badges, or timely feedback, these rewards stimulate the brain and reinforce positive learning behaviours.


3. Repetition: the pathway to long-term memory

Repetition plays a vital role in the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory. When designed thoughtfully, repetition in edtech can facilitate the encoding of knowledge. Approaches such as retrieval practice, spaced learning, and distributed practice (researched extensively from cognitive psychology) are effective methods for reinforcing learning over time. Leaving gaps between episodes of the learning and returning to the content again later is effective because it draws on a further benefit of having a brain that pays greater attention to things that re-occur as they might be useful for survival.  In this way, approaches like these techniques capitalize on the brain's natural ability to consolidate information through repeated exposure.   

Thinking about repetition in the context of the first two points we have covered, the challenge for teachers and instructional designers is therefore a balancing act.  Being effective requires engaging repetition, not just repetition and not just entertainment.


4. Association with existing knowledge

At its core, all learning is based on the brain's ability to make associations. At the biological level learning is literally the forming, altering or removal of connections between neurons and across neural networks. When learners connect new information with their existing knowledge, the brain is more likely to retain and apply that information effectively. In edtech instructional design, facilitating this process involves scaffolding content to guide learners in forming connections with what they already know. Encouraging learners to relate new material to their experiences and prior knowledge enhances comprehension and retention.


5. Balancing and being mindful of cognitive effort

Learning often requires thinking critically and engaging with complex concepts. However, it is crucial to strike a balance between challenging learners and overloading their cognitive capacity. Working memory has limited capacity and can be easily overwhelmed. In edtech, educators must be mindful of the cognitive load imposed on learners and design content that promotes deep thinking without causing cognitive overload.  Building new knowledge, skills and understanding up step by step is not only essential but the gateway to being automatic and having mastery over content and the ability to use it in practice. The better learned small building blocks become the more easily they bind together in long-term memory and the more capacity is freed up in working memory for additional new information to be added.


6. Making learning social

Even in an increasingly isolated world, human brains crave social interaction. Incorporating social elements into edtech instructional design can enhance the learning experience. This can include collaborative projects, discussion forums, or peer-to-peer interactions within virtual learning environments. Leveraging the social nature of learning helps learners stay engaged and provides opportunities for knowledge sharing and collective problem-solving.


Talking to people at the GESS Conference over the years and from being a judge for the awards, many examples have emerged of how to do this.  Below are just a few: 

  • Engagement through interactive simulations: edtech platforms can incorporate interactive simulations and virtual experiments that present complex concepts in a visually engaging manner. For instance, in a science class, students can use virtual labs to conduct experiments, which not only captures their attention but also provides a hands-on learning experience. 
  • Immediate feedback in online quizzes: When students complete quizzes or assessments online, the edtech platform can provide immediate feedback on their performance. This aligns with the brain's desire for rewards by giving students a sense of accomplishment when they answer questions correctly, reinforcing their learning. 
  • Spaced learning with online flashcards: edtech tools can implement spaced repetition techniques using digital flashcards. These flashcards present information at intervals, helping students review and recall information over time, which is beneficial for long-term memory retention. 
  • Interactive mind maps for knowledge association: edtech can enable students to create interactive mind maps or concept maps. This allows them to visually connect new information with existing knowledge, fostering better understanding and retention. 
  • Adaptive learning platforms: Adaptive learning systems use algorithms to tailor the difficulty of content to individual students. These systems balance cognitive effort by adjusting the level of challenge based on a student's progress, preventing cognitive overload. 
  • Virtual collaborative projects: Edtech can facilitate social learning by enabling students to collaborate on projects, even in virtual settings. For example, students can work together on a shared document or use virtual whiteboards for brainstorming sessions. 
  • Peer review and discussion forums: Edtech platforms can include features for peer review and discussion forums where students can share their thoughts, engage in debates, and learn from one another. This encourages social interaction and helps students connect new information with different perspectives. 
  • Personalising learning paths: Edtech can use data analytics and AI to create personalised learning paths for students. By analysing their progress and preferences, platforms can recommend specific resources or activities that align with their learning style and goals, enhancing engagement and comprehension. 
  • Real-world simulations: In subjects like business or healthcare, edtech can incorporate real-world simulations or case studies that require critical thinking and decision-making. These simulations can be designed to challenge students while keeping cognitive load manageable. 
  • Gamified learning experiences: Gamification elements, such as leaderboards, achievements, and virtual rewards, can be integrated into edtech to make the learning process more engaging and rewarding for students. 

The intersection of neuroscience and cognitive psychology offers valuable insights into how the brain learns and processes information. Edtech instructional designers can harness these principles to create engaging and effective learning experiences. By emphasizing engagement, reward, repetition, association, cognitive balance, and social interaction, educators can develop edtech materials that optimize the brain's capacity to acquire and retain knowledge. As technology continues to reshape education, embracing these principles will be instrumental in shaping the future of learning.