Try making a cake by guessing which ingredients you need, tossing everything into the bowl without measuring, making a vague estimation of how long to bake it and skipping the frosting. At best, it will come out tasteless and dry. At worst, the house will burn down.

It’s just like trying to create a learning experience without the benefit of three important elements: cognitive neuroscience, user data and user experience design. A learning experience that’s not well-researched; doesn’t consider the audience, isn’t tested; and, worst of all, is boring and predictable will fall flat, just like that cake. If you want a learning experience to be inspiring, become a methodology chef. By mixing insights from cognitive and adult learning theory (cognitive neuroscience), data about your learners (intent), and design theory (appeal), you can create effective learning experiences. This approach is called neurolearning design.

Cognitive Neuroscience: The Main Ingredient

In neurolearning design, we use cognitive neuroscience and adult learning theory to build the blueprints for our courses. Adult learning theory (andragogy) helps us structure our courses according to how adults learn. Cognitive neuroscience helps us understand, in a broad sense, what motivates adults to learn. For instance, we can’t forget what cognitive neuroscience (and even the advertising industry) has proven to be true: People only make meaningful connections to information if they experience emotions.

As adult learning theory expert Malcom Knowles wrote, “Educators can, however, make a difference in what people learn and how well they learn it. If we know why we are learning and if the reason fits our needs as we perceive them, we will learn quickly and deeply.” By building our courses upon solid cognitive and andragogical theories, we give our learners the reason, or motivation, to take in the information, understand it, remember it and apply it.

Intent Binds the Ingredients Together

Until we add the binding agent to the dry ingredients, our confection will not hold together. In neurolearning design, we build courses with intent, to create custom learning experiences that stick with our audience. Intent is the process of developing creative ideas with a specific outcome in mind so we can communicate and sell it to a unique audience. The insights we gain from facts and data — the learners’ struggles, the company culture, employees’ needs and wants — help us know them and speak to them. Intent informs our creative decisions. In other words, if we are going to tell a story to teach a lesson, we must make sure that the stories we tell are meaningful in some way to our audience, so they will feel and care (cognitive neuroscience).

Appeal Is the Icing on the Cake

The idiomatic expression “icing on the cake” refers to something that’s nice but nonessential, which doesn’t make sense for two reasons: First, nobody wants a cake without icing. It is essential to the culinary and aesthetic art of baking. Second, a cake with the wrong icing, icing that’s too sugary or a five-inch-thick layer of icing is also an affront to the confectionary arts.

In neurolearning design, appeal is backed by cognitive science and intent. Therefore, it is the perfect amount of the perfect icing on the cake.

As educators, we often go right into the content and call it a day. We often overlook appeal, because it doesn’t seem essential. But learning experiences, as we’ve learned from cognitive neuroscience, should evoke delight and flow. Appeal is ultimately about putting learners in the right mental place, where their brains take in and retain as much as possible.

Appeal is subjective; just because something resonates with one audience doesn’t mean it will resonate with another. That subjectivity is why cognitive neuroscience and intent must guide and inform appeal. Graphics aren’t just decorative; they have meaning and add value. We don’t use animation just to “wow” our audience. Interactions designed with intent create outcomes. Every design element serves a higher purpose, and all of the elements work together to achieve an important learning outcome.

With neurolearning design, we look to models, research and data for inspiration to help guide our creativity. Rather than choose one element over another, we use all three — cognitive neuroscience, intent and appeal — to create learning experiences that inspire participants.