5 Brain Hacks to Get Your eLearners to Learn Faster

What if you could give your elearners the superpower of learning faster? Sound impossible? Not if you know the cognitive hacks to boost brain performance. Your subconscious mind is smarter than you. It makes most of your decisions without you--and without the permission of your conscious mind. It’s the fastest-acting part of your brain. Yet most eLearning courses engage the slowest acting part of the brain - the neocortex, seat of logic and reasoning.
5 Brain Hacks to Get Your eLearners to Learn Faster

How do you access and activate the subconscious in eLearning? To find out, let’s first look at the brain structure.

Your noggin has three brains and we make most subconscious decisions with the bottom brain.
The top brain, where we might say our smarts are, is the neocortex. It’s like a supercomputer. This is where we do logic and reasoning tasks. (1+2=2; If condition X, then result Y.)
Down a bit farther in the skull is the limbic system, which processes emotions. (Aw, cute puppy!)

But it’s the brain at the very bottom—the reptilian brain—that is the fastest-acting and most active of the three brains.

Problem is, it doesn’t think. Or process information.

It just reacts. (AIYEE! SNAKE!)

It’s this reactionary part of the brain where most subconscious decisions happen.

But the thing is, this part of the brain has powerful goals. (Find food, have sex, stay safe, run, fight.) And it reacts to triggers in the environment that it perceives as either advancing or hindering those goals.

The trick is to provide those triggers that help your subconscious jump into action and go onto high alert. In this heightened state of alert, the reptilian brain will process the information faster—and attach a higher degree of importance to the content. Thus, your learners learn faster.

Here are the 5 brain hacks to help your learners learn faster by activating the subconscious.

1. Start with an Emotional Trigger.

Start your eLearning course with an emotional trigger to activate the subconscious. (And when I say “start” I mean this is the first thing in the course—before a title page, before a branding page, before anything! Starting with a title page or branded company screen automatically puts the brain into “nothing-new-here” mode.)

We are emotional creatures and for the subconscious to truly buy into a goal – to truly want it – you have to create an emotional attachment to the outcome of the course—within the first six seconds of the screen populating! The most effective emotional trigger in eLearning is to show the learner in a common, everyday situation that causes him or her extreme frustration, fear, pain or loss.

For example, if your eLearning course is teaching learners how to use a new expense tracking software, you might start off with a brief scenario showing the stressed learner frantically searching for lost receipts from a business trip, or the hassle of keeping track of receipts, or the pain of getting a rejected expense reimbursement request because he has no receipts. These types of scenarios trigger anxiety about not getting paid, and it activates the subconscious to take action to “fight” to protect itself (in this case from financial loss). The subconscious then sets up to go on a hunt to prevent financial loss from lost receipts. (You can read more about the addictive power of the hunt in elearning courses in this post.)

2. Have a conversation with your learner.

We humans are hard wired to want to have a back-and-forth conversation with someone else. But that means more than just posing a question to learners and moving on to the next screen. Linguistic anthropologists tell us that to truly engage the brain in a conversation you have to have the elearner actively participate in the conversation. How do you do that with a self-paced, online course? One way is to personalize the responses of an on-screen avatar to the responses of the learner through branched interactions.

Staying with our example of the expense tracking software course, below is a sample of how to personalize the conversation.

Have a conversation with your learner.

An example of one way to "have a conversation" with your eLearner and personalize the course.

Notice how the tone and playfulness of the response changes based on the initial learner response and how the avatar actually seems to have a personality (as evidenced by the slightly sarcastic and slightly humorous response to the second learner response). It’s exactly what happens in “real time” conversations. To make this approach even more powerful, be sure to use an animated avatar—not a static character cutout. Why? Because the subconscious is also activated by watching human movements and actions. Many anthropological studies confirm that we respond to human faces, emotions and movements more than any other types of images and movements. So use them to your advantage in your eLearning courses.

3. Engage the mirror neurons.

Your brain can’t tell the difference between seeing someone do something, and actually doing the task yourself. In my book (Instant Appeal: The 8 Primal Factors That Create Blockbuster Success, AMACOM, New York, 2010), I devote nearly an entire chapter to the power of mirror neurons.

To understand how mirror neurons work, let’s look at exactly what happens when you’re watching a football game on TV. You stare at the screen and watch the players rush across the field. Photons – or units of light – hit the retinas of your eyes and send the images of the rushing players to the visual centers of your brain, where the players’ actions are analyzed and patters of movement are detected. This information is then sent off to the mirror neurons of the brain and these cells remap the patterns of running, tackling or passing onto the appropriate sequence of muscle twitches that help you produce the identical actions—even while your butt is firmly planted on the couch.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never played football. At that moment, your brain unconsciously thinks you are playing football. That’s why when a player suffers a particularly pounding tackle you winch in pain; your psyche tells you that your body took the same brutal pounding.

With our travel software training example, you could activate the mirror neurons by showing an animated video of a character leaving his hotel room and forgetting to take the receipt with him. Then, when he begins to submit his expense report, he realizes he’s forgotten his hotel receipt and his anxiety rises. But then he remembers that he just started using the new software program. When he logs on to his software account, he finds an electronic copy of his receipt has already been submitted to his account directly from the hotel. He’s relieved. By watching the avatar use the program to overcome the potential of lost reimbursement from a lost receipt, your learners’ brains will think they have saved money, time, and worry by using the program. The subconscious minds of your learners will actually feel relief.

4. Use exaggeration, caricatures and comics. 

Researcher Vilayanur Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of San Diego, says most engaging designs adhere to certain “laws of art” that titillate the visual areas of the brain. One of those laws is the “peak shift effect,” which is well known in animal discrimination learning. In peak shift, animals sometimes respond to more exaggerated version of the training stimuli.

Ramachandran found that the exaggerations in caricatures and comics, in particular, light up our primal aesthetic sense and is a clever brain hack to get people to engage with and remember content. I’ve found this to be true anecdotally as well; the comic panel and graphic novel eLearning courses I have created have been among the most successful (from a learning outcomes standpoint) and most well received of any I have created. (I also cover the peak shift effect extensively in my book.)

Others have applied this exaggeration principle to human learning successfully, too. When Jim Kwik, CEO of Kwik Learning teaches people to improve memory, he tells them to exaggerate the things they are trying to remember. That’s because, like Ramachandram, Kwik knows the brain craves novelty and mental exaggeration is a quick and simple learning hack.

5. Provide instant gratification.

The reptilian brain is programmed to want results NOW. It doesn’t care about the future. It’s present-focused. To appeal to this subconscious desire, be sure to include an immediate call to action – the one thing learners can do now to improve their situations or change behavior.

Putting it all together in a quick, easy way.

I’ve covered a lot of information in this post, and I realize it can be a bit overwhelming to try to figure out how to fit all of these into one short (15-minute) course. To help you out, I’ve created a one-page cheat sheet that shows you how to incorporate all five of these hacks into a 15-minute training module.

Click Here to Get Your Free eLearning Brain Hack Template!

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