The human brain is probably the most complex mechanism in existence and performs amazing tasks 24/7. Every tiny piece of information about you is stored within the network of 100 billion nerve cells in your brain. Although the brain is involved in all aspects of the functioning of the human body, it is probably the organ we know least about. Neuroscience – the science studying the physical brain – is a rather young science.

Neuroscience is a truly fascinating area of study that makes it possible for us to understand how our brains control everything about us: our memories, imagination, thinking, feelings and learning – especially learning. Neuroscientists have developed a lot of theories on how people learn and the many factors that influence learning. No matter the age, professional background, or area or level of expertise, adults learn new things in similar ways: by watching others, by trying to replicate what they see, by doing the new thing more than once, by involving most of their senses while doing so, and so on.

Even if we add the insights provided by cognitive science – the science studying the brain from a psychological point of view – there are still plenty of things we don’t know about the human brain. Jeff Lichtman, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, makes an interesting analogy of the distance between what we know about the brain and what there is to know about it: If everything you need to know about the brain is a mile, how far have we walked in this mile? His answer is three inches.

Learning is a physical process.

We do know, however, that learning makes the brain restructure itself. We don’t know exactly how it happens, but during the learning process, new neural connections are created, others grow stronger and yet others grow weaker. The physical differences in the brain are not obvious to the naked eye, but they exist nonetheless.

The process of learning changes the physical structure of the brain in two different ways: It creates new neuronal connections, or it alters the existing connections, resulting in a constant organization and reorganization of the brain. Importantly, this process doesn’t stop at a certain age; it still happens in the brains of the oldest people. This is particularly important when we consider adult learning.

The learning cycle proposed by educator and biologist James Zull in 2002 offers a simplified but helpful picture of how different areas of the brain are engaged in the four stages of learning:

  1. The sensory cortices are involved in gathering information.
  2. The temporal lobe is the main star of reflection.
  3. The prefrontal cortex does the magic of creation.
  4. The motor cortex makes active testing possible.

The ultimate goal of teaching should be to support learners through the entire learning cycle in order to get the new information into learners’ long-term memory. But too many training programs and learning sessions focus just on the first phase. Creators of learning materials should therefore keep in mind that the other three phases are just as important if mastery is pursued.

What hinders the learning process?

Not everything goes according to plan, and there are plenty of factors that can negatively influence information-processing.

For example, if the concepts included in a training course are complex and difficult, trainees may not catch all information thoroughly in the first try. They’ll need their questions answered and therefore will require more time to understand everything.

What’s more, if people attend a course just because they have to – which is common – and they don’t consider it meaningful and aligned with their own learning objectives, they won’t pay much attention. So they won’t learn too much.

Another aspect that can negatively affect the learning process is a low-quality representation of the new information. The more connections training makes between new and already processed information, the easier the learning process.

Last, but not least, physiological factors can have their say in the success of the learning process. If the human body is sleep-deprived, stressed or tired, the brain already has enough on its plate. In such situations, dealing with new information that requires plenty of memory fuel, isn’t meaningful and/or is presented poorly drops far down the brain’s list of priorities.

By understanding learning as a physical process and the complete cycle of learning in the human brain, and by being aware of what can hinder the learning process, trainers and anyone else involved in teaching others can actually get into their audience’s brains and create effective instructional materials.