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Article – How Adults Learn: Your Introduction to the Neuroscience of Learning

As instructors, we are integral to the development and maintenance of skills, knowledge, attitudes and behaviours required for successful performance, both in the barracks and on operations (Australian Defence Force, 2017). To be effective at this, instructors need a thorough knowledge of ‘how adults learn’. Unfortunately, ‘how adults learn’ is a massive domain with a plethora of different theories and ideas. Do not despair though, this article provides some guidance on how adults learn and offers some tips you can use for your own instruction to great effect.

While there are a multitude of learning theories, most use the physiological side of learning, (neuroscience) as a foundation. When we learn, the brain creates and changes webs of neural networks that store information. By understanding the fundamental principles of neuroscience, it is possible to assist the brain in developing robust neural networks. Examples of neuroscience foundations that help to promote learning include:

  • Attention: Neural networks require deep concentration in order to develop.
  • Memory: The mind stores information by holding it in the short term or working memory. From there, if information is not consolidated to a person’s long term memory, it is lost.
  • Use it or lose it: When neural networks are not used, they degrade over time causing information to be forgotten.
  • Motivation and failure: Motivation can be influenced by how we shape learning (e.g. reward and accomplishment). We can also use failure to promote learning, just as much as we can for successes.
  • Conditions for learning: A learner’s physical, cognitive and emotional requirements need to be met to provide an environment conducive to learning.
  • Physical: Learning is an energy intensive task, and the brain requires adequate fuel and sleep to work effectively.
  • Cognitive: Human brains have a cognitive capacity, dividing attention compromises learning potential.
  • Emotion: Emotional links established during learning provide stronger neural networks.
  • Collaboration: We are biologically driven by social interaction and use it to gain exposure and validation of our learning (Vorhauser-Smith, 2012).

Incorporating these foundations into instruction is similar to checking the route before stepping off on a navigation exercise. By being aware of what you need to do in order to reach a desired end state, you are more likely to achieve outcomes that are both effective and efficient. Similar to the example above, instructors can apply the principles of neuroscience to optimise learning.

Now the part you have been waiting for – practical tips you can apply when instructing.

Sell the why (Attention). At the start of a lesson, take the time to really impress upon learners why they need to know the lesson’s content, it shouldn’t become a box ticking exercise. To achieve this, you can use real world examples, ask question to arouse interest, or even have learners share their own experiences of why the lesson content is important. This will inspire motivation and foster engagement, both of which actively promote more effective and efficient learning.

Own words (Memory + Attention + Motivation). When asking questions, instead of asking for the information you have presented to be repeated, ask your learners to summarise or describe the content in their own words. This technique will push learners to use higher order thinking skills and help them define the learning experience.

Learning is ongoing (Memory + Use it or lose it). Schedule regular reviews or follow-ups throughout your learning events/courses. This could involve review sessions, liaising with other instructors so they can review your content, or posting resources after a lesson. This should help reduce  ‘data dumping’, which can happen when learning is seen as a one-off event.

One last thought …

You now have a basic knowledge of ‘the science of learning’ which can be applied to your own instruction. Using this, and further developing your knowledge of how adults learn, will greatly help your students perform better in their workplace.


About the authors: This article was produced by a team of dedicated educators from the Education Wing at the Land Warfare Centre. Contact Education Wing via the Defence Protected Network (DPN) for individual and unit education support.


References

Australian Defence Force. (2017) Army Training Instruction 1-2/17 Army Instructor Development. Canberra, Australia: The Australian Regular Army

Vorhauser-Smith, S. (2012) The Neuroscience of Learning & Development. Pageup People.

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