Increasing numbers of organizations are including digital learning solutions in their training programs. When properly leveraged, online training holds many promises, including supplementing classroom training to increase learning, saving travel costs by holding remote training and integrating training into daily workplace activities.

Despite these promises and the significant investment many organizations are making in going digital, e-learning presents several challenges, including disengaged learners and lower learning effectiveness. One study of community and technical college students found that online courses have higher drop-out rates and fewer passing grades than classroom courses.

With these challenges in mind, organizations need to ensure that their investment in learning technologies is worthwhile. One way is to turn to neuroscience to understand how the brain learns and how to create optimal learning conditions for the brain.

What Does Neuroscience Say About Learning?

The AGES model for learning takes a neuroscientific look at how we learn and how to make learning stick. According to this model, we retain information when we focus enough attention on the material, take an active role in generating knowledge, have the right emotions in play and revisit the information regularly spacing. With careful planning and design, we can leverage this neuroscience research to maximize the impact of e-learning.

Designing E-Learning Systems That Engage These Factors

When we give something our attention, we activate our hippocampus, which is the region of the brain where learning takes place. There are three considerations to keep in mind about how attention affects learning:

  • We can hold our attention for only about 20 minutes.
  • Multitasking inhibits learning.
  • When training includes too much content in the same modality, it can lose learners’ attention.

The temptation with e-learning is often to cover too many subjects at once or to use long, information-rich modules. However, without an instructor or other learners in the room to help recapture participants’ attention, it is important that e-learning modules are simple, straightforward and recapture their attention every 20 minutes.

Generating information, including linking new information to knowledge we already have, is another important factor that activates our hippocampus. This happens in many ways, including:

  • Social information, where learners link their knowledge with knowledge that other learners share.
  • Metacognitive generation, where knowledge builds on itself.
  • Insight generation, where learners suddenly have an “Aha!” moment.

Giving learners the opportunity to start generating information after 20 minutes of learning can improve memory. In a classroom setting, this generation is social, but having a discussion on an e-learning platform is more difficult. You can manufacture the conditions for insight by, for example, giving the learners a simple puzzle to solve that links new information to previous knowledge.

Arousing the right emotions also activates the hippocampus and helps learning stick. By arousing positive emotions such as excitement and joy, you can engage learners and help ensure that their new knowledge sticks. However, negative emotions can do the opposite; if learners are upset or angry, their chances of retaining the information decrease significantly. One way of activating joy and excitement is by introducing an element of competition; engage learners in the excitement of trying to win, and help combat negative emotions by enabling small wins along the way.

Finally, by spacing learning, you can increase the long-term stickiness of your content. One study found that spacing was more effective than cramming for 90% of participants. You can encourage spacing by providing microlearning that follows up on training sessions or by creating apps and programs to use each week to integrate training into the everyday workplace.

Gamification: The Key to Hacking Neuroscience and Improving Training

Most organizations already understand the importance of games when it comes to attention; a well-designed game can turn a boring subject (e.g., company policy) into an exciting challenge. However, many are missing the trick of “hacking” neuroscience to create digital learning that engages all four factors of attention, generation, emotion and spacing.

Gamified e-learning doesn’t need to be overcomplicated, and we can look outside the training industry to find great examples of apps that work. For example, Duolingo is one of the most popular language-learning apps in the world. Its gamified model incorporates competition through levels and points, spacing with daily reminders, and even a social generation aspect with online discussion forums. The model is simple and effective.

If you are serious about investing in e-learning and want to optimize your training, why not take a hint from one of the world’s most popular learning apps and hack neuroscience with gamification?