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How Brain Science is Transforming Virtual Training

In the past few years, you may have seen the term “brain science” used to introduce some (purportedly) new and improved approaches to instruction, whether it be a design, instructional technique, or instructional delivery methodology (e.g., virtual training). As with many terms of art, the meaning of “brain science” lacks some precision – indeed, readers must infer the meaning from the context, whether it be marketing materials, research, or instructional guideline.

The reality is that most experienced instructional professionals (designers, instructors, etc.) have been practicing specific implementations of brain science for some time – a simple example of brain science in learning and development will illustrate:

We know from neuroscience that the amygdala in the brain processes emotion, including fear response – the perception of threat (“a threat stimulus”) causes the amygdala to trigger various parts of the body in preparation for “flight or fight” including the release of hormones, adrenaline, etc.

Concurrently, other parts of the brain (the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex) immediately begin a higher-order evaluation of the threat to determine a best course of action. At this point, higher order processes (including those relating to non-threat related tasks) are set aside to optimize the threat evaluation.

“OK”, you say, “what’s this got to do with a Zoom webinar?”

Great question – let’s get to it.

In many instructional deliveries, experienced facilitators will strive to set up some ground rules for interaction during the session. Part of the ground rules involve creating a psychologically safe environment wherein learners feel free to ask questions without judgment or ridicule from their peers.

Why?

Turns out, it has to do with fear and the amygdala. If a learner is afraid of appearing ignorant by asking a question, that fear will not only preclude them from asking the question, but will, in fact, supplant a great deal of the cognitive processes involved in learning.

While this is a gross simplification of complex processes, the example bears out that neuroscience can, and frequently does, inform our instructional practice. Even if we aren’t aware of why setting ground rules before the virtual training begins is important, we know that doing so typically produces a better level of interaction with learners.

And so it is that for more than 5,000 years, without the benefit of an EEG, humans have been trail-and-erroring our way through instructional techniques and methods to develop best-of-breed practices to teach and learn in various contexts. Caine and Caine (1991) sought to develop a set of guidelines based on science-based interventions to enhance instructional treatment a priori based on what we’ve learned about the brain and cognition and ensure that the methodology and techniques applied provide measurable outcomes.

What is Brain Science?

The term brain science, at least in the context of learning and development, was coined in 1991 by a husband and wife research team focusing on instructional practices in primary and secondary education (Caine & Caine, 1991). The research focused on applying an interdisciplinary approach to learning that included cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and has expanded to include computer science, biology, anthropology, and related disciplines.

Cognitive psychology involves the study of mental processes—all of the things that go on inside your brain, including creativity, perception, thinking, memory/recall, attention, language, problem-solving, and learning, and the observable phenomena around these processes with the environment. There are numerous practical applications for cognitive psychology, ranging from therapeutic treatment for brain injury to developing decision making protocols to enhancing instructional effectiveness to instructional strategies in the classroom to enhance recall and application.

Neuroscience is a field of study encompassing the various scientific disciplines dealing with physical structures, development, function, chemistry and pathology of the brain and nervous system. Like cognitive psychology, neuroscience has a broad application in medicine, therapy, and education.

Within the context of learning and development, it may help to think about

  • neuroscience as studying the physical changes in the brain while learning,
  • and cognitive psychology as studying the intangibles of thought and reasoning and environmental interactions as learning occurs.

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Measurability and the Learner

If we think about the learner in one of the diverse learning opportunities and environments available today, a recurring theme is the use of the term “engagement”. A casual review of current literature in academic research finds more than 300 scholarly articles and more than 2,000 trade articles in the past two years alone that use some variation of the term “learner engagement”, but few commentators define learner engagement explicitly. It is perhaps the ubiquity of the usage that allows researchers and commentators to continue the practice without a strict definition – it is assumed everyone knows what is meant by the term.

In the industry, learner engagement has developed into a short-hand term that loosely represents an amalgam of learner subject-matter interest/expertise, attitude, motivation, and mastery. Moreover, it is often explicitly or implicitly assumed that an engaged learner will achieve better outcomes against measurable rubrics than one who is not engaged, and the challenge for learning and development professional has been re-cast into development of engaging instructional experiences. If the learning is engaging, the thinking goes, then the instruction will be a success.

Returning to the precepts of Caine and Caine (1991), however, we need to ask – What exactly is engagement, how is measured, and what are the outcomes of an engaged learner versus a disengaged learner?

The InQuire Engagement Framework

InSync began research in virtual learning experience in 2005, well before the virtual classroom became ubiquitous in learning and development. Most recently, InSync developed and began validating a scale, instrumentation, behavioral artifacts, and measures related to the latent construct of learner engagement and applied it to the virtual classroom learning environment to assess the effects of learner engagement on instructional outcomes. The findings of the research (still ongoing) can be summarized as “engaged learners achieve better outcomes” (a surprise to few, if any).

The important thing to take away from the research is not that InSync spent a lot of effort verifying something we already knew (because we really didn’t know it, nor could we measure it) – instead, the takeaway should be that InSync now has a well-defined and measurable framework of instructional techniques and behavioral indicia that produces better learning outcomes through a construct called “learner engagement”.

Based on the research, there are two key things to understand about the construct:

  1. Learner engagement is highly dynamic.
  2. Learner engagement factors (intellectual, emotional, and environmental) moderate each other – that is, emotional engagement can have a direct effect on intellectual engagement, etc.

The InQuire Engagement Framework™ is an ongoing research effort at InSync to develop, refine, and implement instructional practices that produce measurable improvements to learning outcomes. The framework is developed around three factors of learner engagement – emotional, intellectual, and environmental – and includes methods to improve instructional design and delivery against organizational objectives. The framework is developed and applicable to all learning environments (including virtual training).

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Role of Designers, Facilitators, and Producers

If we think about the learner engagement as a desired outcome within the learning experience, the instructional designer and instructional team roles can be thought of as instantiating and sustaining engagement throughout the experience. As a first matter, everything begins with the design. Key strategic decisions are made in the instructional design and development process that have far-reaching consequences in delivery – this is not a new concept, but the consequence of poorly made decisions early in the design process are amplified in the virtual classroom because of the lack of mitigating circumstances (a strong facilitator can make a lot of problems go away).

If designers reflect on the need to engage learners, what they’re really trying to do is align the intent of the learner with that of the instruction. A failure to do so vastly reduces the chances of learner engagement and will be perceived as violating a basic adult learning principle (Knowles, 1981). The fact of the matter is that relevance is perceived, not an absolute fact, and the relevance and applicability under Knowles’ andragogical model can better be thought of as a consequence of alignment of learner intent with desired learning outcome in the instructional program, an alignment that the designer can design into the training experience and the instructional team make clear to the learner. Such alignment promotes engagement along all three factors to some extent, most notable in the intellectual factor.

The instructional team of facilitator and producer work within the instructional experience to manage interaction between individual learners, lead the instructional experience for learners, promote engagement within the subject matter through discourse and interaction, and manage individual needs within the environment. Learner engagement is profoundly dynamic – it’s easy to “lose” a learner if there’s a misstep, intentional or not. The challenge in a virtual training setting is that missteps are easier to make, and so, extensive care should be taken to ensure all learners are capable of interacting and provided an opportunity to engage with all elements of the learning environment (their peers, the facilitator, and the subject matter being discussed) and sustain the perceived relationship between the learner and the desired outcome of the instruction. The InQuire Engagement Framework™ provides a variety of observable criteria and tactics within the instructional practice to sustain engagement and remediate a learner that may be lost.

Looking Forward

The global pandemic in 2020 forced many businesses into new learning environments and strategies to address existing and emergent instructional needs. Many of the solutions adopted were expedient, met the short-term goal of getting people online together, but were less-than-optimal in actual learner outcome. While virtual instructional delivery adoption was certainly accelerated by the pandemic, it should now be the focus of learning and development professionals to enhance their instructional practice to revisit their approach and include a variety of instructional strategies that are effective and engaging for the learner, particularly in the virtual classroom, as it appears the impacts of the pandemic are still in effect around the globe.

Someday in the near term the pandemic, from all analysis, will become endemic, and we as an industry need to learn to re-focus on instructional solutions that address the learners needs longer term, and don’t just get training done, but get it done efficiently and effectively. The InQuire Engagement Framework™ provides a means to do that and provides a meaningful and measurable relationship between the instructional treatment, learner outcome, and organizational objective.

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Published by Dr. Charles (Chip) Dye, Ph.D. October 6, 2021
Dr. Charles (Chip) Dye, Ph.D.