Recent research in the field of educational neuroscience demonstrates that rapid technological advancements are fundamentally changing how people acquire, process and learn information. Generational shifts have ushered in a new breed of digitally native learners; meanwhile, the pandemic continues to disrupt learning environments and workforces across the globe. Students are challenged to be lifelong learners while juggling information overload, Zoom fatigue, stress, and increasingly fragmented attention spans.
I work with the world’s largest financial institutions to design training solutions that drive performance for thousands of students each year. Over the past 15 years, as online education has emerged and evolved, I’ve had a front-row seat to observe the shifts occurring among students. While technology is vital to delivering better learning experiences, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
Today’s environment demands a holistic approach to learning that considers the student as a whole person rather than only addressing their educational background. Students learn best when teachers take into account psychological, neurobiological, and physiological factors, such as motivation, self-confidence, sense of purpose, learning challenges, cognitive flexibility, and resilience. In a world of accelerating technological transformation, a holistic approach to learning must also incorporate advances in the science of human peak performance, including psychology, biology, and neuroscience. Here are five core principles for designing holistic learning experiences:
1. LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY WITH PURPOSE AND INTENTION
New and powerful technology does not translate directly to optimal learning experiences. One size does not fit all when it comes to learning; therefore, a thoughtful approach to digitizing the learning process is critical:
• Evaluate the pros and cons of asynchronous on-demand, live-virtual, live-in-person, and blended learning according to the needs of the target learner.
• Consider how to track meaningful data across the digital learner’s journey. Data science not only helps educators spot trends and predict outcomes, but it can also arm them with insights they can use to step in and offer real-time support that can change the trajectory of a student’s performance.
• Weigh the benefits of digital tools relative to physical ones. While micro-lessons and adaptive learning enable education to occur anywhere and at any time, research shows that some old-school tools remain highly effective, such as note-taking with paper and pen to increase retention.
2. UNDERSTAND HOW STRESS AFFECTS THE BRAIN
Recent advances in neuroscience and neuroimaging technology have yielded valuable insights into how the brain learns, adapts, and interacts with the world. The foundational connection between education and neuroscience is essential to understanding learning in today’s world, especially in the context of how stress affects the brain.
Chronic stress impairs memory and concentration, decreases the production of critical neurotransmitters, impairs long-term memory and recall, and decreases the flow of information between neuropathways. But while long-term, chronic stress hinders learning, acute or short-term stress can prime the brain for improved performance when properly channeled. Educators can empower students to perform at their best by teaching them techniques to both mitigate and harness the effects of stress.
3. BUILD MOMENTUM TO HELP LEARNERS FLOW
Balancing student autonomy and self-paced learning with accountability, social connection, and challenge helps calibrate a rhythm that can lead to optimal performance. “Flow” (or in neuroscience terminology, transient hypofrontality) is the cognitive state where we are so hyper-engaged in the task at hand that time seems to expand, our analytical mind quiets down, and we perform at our best. According to Herb Benson’s work at Harvard, the state of flow has a four-part cycle:
• Struggle: the (unpleasant) loading phase of learning.
• Release: the subconscious act of processing and synthesizing information while our mind is focused on another topic (release often happens during activities like cooking or driving).
• Flow: the result of the brain flushing stress hormones out of the body and releasing performance-enhancing chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
• Recovery: the deliberate act of allowing the body, brain, and nervous system to relax into a state of tranquility or homeostasis. Recovery is crucial to avoiding burnout.
4. EVOKE EMOTION TO FUEL MOTIVATION AND LONG-TERM MEMORY
Human emotions are primal, powerful, and intimately tied to learning, attention, memory, and performance. Information combined with emotion becomes long-term memory. Telling lively stories and jokes to elicit shock, anticipation, and laughter in students not only makes for an engaging lesson, but it also increases comprehension and retention around complex topics. Educators should also consider using novelty, like pop quizzes, to keep students engaged and curious. Boredom can produce stress and send the amygdala into an overactive state. Emotion also produces intrinsic motivation to overcome procrastination. Educators can tap into emotional motivation by:
• Inspiring learners to persevere by reminding them of their personal goals.
• Using incremental feedback, beautiful design, and positive reinforcers to light up the brain.
• Integrating social connection whenever possible to boost inspiration, support, and accountability.
5. CHOOSE INSTRUCTORS WHO HAVE THE X-FACTOR
The instructor is the ultimate instrument for delivering the best—or worst—possible learning experience. Expertise alone is not enough to keep students engaged and on track. Whether they are delivering a voice-over on a video micro-lesson or standing in front of a classroom, effective instructors display an unmistakable passion for coaching students. They also possess what I call the X-factor: a mix of mastery of the content, the ability to break down complex topics into their simplest forms, patience, approachability, authenticity, confidence, timing, and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm—my favorite quality in an instructor—is contagious and cannot be faked. Neither can the X-factor.
As our brains, technology, and work environments continue to evolve and intersect, the way we design education needs to shift as well. If we take a holistic approach to empower both students and instructors with thoughtfully curated experiences that unleash human potential, we will not only meet today’s learners where they are, but also propel them forward toward their goals.
As CEO of Knopman Marks Financial Training, Liza Streiff is passionate about helping people reach their potential and thrive.