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Be a better trainer by understanding how the student brain works

Learning is a complex process, and the more you know about how people learn, the more your students will get out of your training. Margaret Elwood presents a tour of how the brain works.


What happens when you put your hand on a hot stove? That’s a “no-brainer,” right? You either learned the hard way (with a scar to prove it), or you may remember someone yelling when you were a child about to get burned.

Now try this question: Which planet is sixth in order from the sun? If you have to think a little longer to get that answer, you’re not alone. Most of us learned the order of the planets by rote memorization, or with some memory device. (I was taught to say MVEM-J-SUN-P, but I still have to count and translate the sixth letter into Saturn.)

The point is, what we learn through force of will isn’t nearly as easy to recall as what we learn through direct experience. Our students’ degree of emotional involvement in learning determines how accessible that memory is for later recall.

How do our students learn?
As trainers, an understanding of how the brain stores and retrieves information can help us design more effective learning experiences for our students. It can also give us insight into our own learning process. The following model comes from research done at the University of British Columbia, as presented to the ISPI Puget Sound Chapter in October, 1995, by Kerry Elfstrom, a member of the ISPI Vancouver Chapter. Let’s start by looking at Figure A, which shows a simplified picture of the three parts of the brain most involved in learning: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem.

Figure A
Here are the three parts of the brain most involved with learning.


The cerebrum is the thinking cap, where conscious thought occurs. The cerebellum, in our simplified model, is the seat of our values and feelings, and is key to accessing memories. And the most primitive part of the brain, the brain stem, controls unconscious functions for survival such as breathing, heart rate, and the fight-or-flight response.

These three parts start work in reverse order when any new information comes our way. The process occurs like this:
  1. The brain stem screens the information for possible threat.
  2. The cerebellum screens the information for value.
  3. The cerebrum works to find associations with old information, much like cross-referencing in a filing cabinet, as it creates meaning and makes sense of the information to the individual.
  4. When the learner gets a chance to try out the “filing system” by attempting to retrieve the information from memory, success is accompanied by a positive feeling. This positive feeling is stored back in the cerebellum, and is a great help to future retrieval.

Let’s illustrate these steps using our example of touching a hot stove. Imagining that the parts of the brain could talk, this is what we might overhear them saying when you touch the hot surface:
  • Brain Stem: “Pain? REFLEX!! Muscles, GET that hand OFF of there NOW!! Skip the rest of the brain, don’t think, do not pass GO, do not collect $200. MOVE IT!!”
  • Cerebellum: “Ouch!! That hurts! I don’t want to hurt any more right now, or ever again. This must be important new information. I’ll pass it along to the cerebrum to see if he can make sense of this.”
  • Cerebrum: “Hmm, this reminds me of some other pain I felt once, but it’s not quite the same. And what’s Mom yelling at me while she’s putting my hand in ice water? ‘Don’t touch that hot stove!’ Sounds like a rule to remember. I think I’ll associate this lesson with PAIN, HOT, and STOVE—if I put it in three places I’ll probably find it quicker when I need it again.”
  • Cerebrum (later): “That stove still looks hot. I’ll just see how close I can get to it to find out for sure. Yup, it still feels warm from a distance. I certainly don’t need to touch it again—I remember how much that hurt.”
  • Cerebellum: “Good for me! I just saved myself some pain, and I’m confident I can do it again in the future.”

Granted, this is an oversimplification of the neurological process. But it illustrates that the perceived value of any information and the emotional satisfaction at successfully retrieving that information are the keys to creating vivid memories that are easy to recall.







Teaching adults
Now that you’re familiar with how the brain processes and stores lessons learned, let’s apply these insights to some common principles of adult learning. Here are some general rules.

Adult learners will only learn and retain information they consider useful. As trainers, we must help them tune into radio station WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). If we fail to do so, the cerebellum won’t let the information go any farther and the cerebrum doesn’t get a chance to store it anywhere.

Adult learners need the opportunity to immediately apply what they’ve learned. Use it or lose it, as we say when students go back to work after a day of training, and give them time to practice new skills in the classroom. Otherwise, the cerebrum doesn’t get a chance to validate its filing of the information, and the cerebellum doesn’t get the memory association of feeling good about successfully retrieving it.

All learners do better with encouragement than with criticism. The best trainers create a positive climate for learning by praising small successes in class, celebrating the mastery of new concepts and skills, and finding positive ways to deliver corrective feedback. This helps the cerebellum lock in the association of a good feeling together with the new information.

Successful trainers help adult learners find associations between new information and what they already know. A situation that brought this rule home for me a few years ago happened at an ice rink. I struck up a conversation with a man in his early 40s, who was obviously on skates for the first time. I encouraged him to stop looking at his feet if possible, and to lift his gaze to normal eye level in order to balance better. I told him it was like driving on the freeway, where looking at the horizon instead of right in front of the car prevents over-steering. He was willing to take my advice because as his cerebrum thought about it, I wasn’t telling him anything new. Instead, I was giving him a new way to apply what he already knew.

Good trainers listen. Trainers should also take the time to find out what the learners say they want or need to know, and tie that to the course objectives or add it when appropriate. The cerebellum already knows what it values, and by finding out in advance the trainer opens wide that doorway for the information to pass through.
The learning process is messy and unpredictable because every learner’s brain has different values and different associations to be made with the information presented, but that’s what makes it exciting to those of us who love teaching and learning. By understanding the rudimentary processes inside the student’s brain, we apply a bit of science to that art and improve our own performance as trainers. To comment on this article, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Margaret.

Margaret Elwood is the Technical Training Administrator for Technology Support Services, a firm based in Everett, WA.

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