London UK 2023

London UK 2023


Dates and Venue


3-4 May 2023 | ExCeL London


Unlocking learner engagement with neuroscience

07 Apr 2022

Unlocking learner engagement with neuroscience

Kate Pasterfield
Unlocking learner engagement with neuroscience

Engagement is the gateway to all learning. If people aren’t engaged, no new information will be taken on board, and certainly no transfer to workplace practice. Engagement is one of three important processes that occur when we learn, and we now know that emotions have a significant role to play. 


Traditionally, the emotions have been overlooked in favour of learning methods that tend to champion cognitive processes associated with educational psychologists like Piaget (Theory of Cognitive Development) and Vygotsky (SocialCultural Development Theory). But, more recently, neuroscience is revealing a close link between learning, memory and emotion.


The reward system, a sub-cortical area that lies deep within the brain, is responsible for our motivation to approach – or move towards – a learning experience. Activating the reward system has a powerful impact on continued engagement, increasing our desire for learning and the ability to remain engaged. This is one of the reasons people are able to play video games for seemingly unlimited amounts of time, because the reward system is being activated continuously, keeping players gripped in the action.


Learning through science-based design

Educational neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones explains how it is possible to leverage neuroscience and take proactive steps to increase engagement in workplace learning. As social beings, people respond well to acknowledgement, feedback and recognition which can be achieved in both classroom and virtual environments, via tools like leaderboards, or through more discrete methods like individualised coaching and mentoring.


So, if engagement is important, can we exploit eye-catching design to entice people? After all, advertising seems to succeed at creating striking campaigns designed to encourage engagement. The answer is: yes and no.


Visual design has a crucial role to play in learning experience, but it’s a tightrope to walk. Engagement is vital for learning, yet any visual devices must be set in balance with relevance. Whilst it may be attention-grabbing to put a dancing unicorn on the cover of a GDPR learning module, its lack of relevance to the content or context makes this an inappropriate graphic device for engagement. It may even damage learning since it draws mental effort to process, burdening our limited working memory.


Before a learner fully interacts with an experience, their subconscious is assessing it, ultimately dictating their levels of engagement. Visual information is processed by the brain automatically, assessing layout, colour, text, density, familiarity and relevance. Designers can take advantage of this fact and use dominant colours or evocative images to influence the right tone and mood, or make titles large, descriptive, or pose a question, to guide attention towards reading.


Learning styles are a neuromyth – what to do instead!


It is well known that learning styles are a ‘neuromyth. So, when it comes to engagement, rather than focusing on ‘learner types’, it is far better to give people choice and agency, offering autonomy and motivation. Meaningful choices that boost engagement might include, self-diagnosing skills gaps, self-reporting current confidence levels in a topic, choosing from a selection of credible, viable answers in a scenario, providing self-reflective answers to questions, and learning with others. 


Sharing choices with a group is another way that neuroscience can unlock learner engagement. As primates, humans are preoccupied with what they can share with their in-group. Learning designers can exploit this by launching learning campaigns on corporate social platforms, providing polls and feedback, and rewarding contributions to forums. This boosts learner engagement, as well as promoting teamwork, togetherness, and a positive culture of learning within the organisation.


Good storytelling should be at the heart of all learning content


Finally, experiencing content in story form is the way the brain prefers to learn. According to Weinschenk, ‘stories grab and hold attention…they also help people process information and they imply causation’.


Rather than a passive act, experiencing a good story is actively engaging. In learning, we use stories to place people in the real context through emotive scenarios, simulating the pressure and competing priorities people must contend with in a real situation, putting their training to the test.


How a story is told is also an important factor for engagement. Tone of voice, and the choice of words we use to elicit a feeling in the audience, conveys authenticity. A good example of this is leveraging user-generated content in learning, which gives a global, diverse, and authentic perspective to workplace training.


Engagement is the gateway to learning


As we outlined at the beginning, engagement is the gateway to learning. Combining a solid grounding in the neuroscience with thoughtful design approaches elevates learning efficacy when applied appropriately. Understanding the role of the reward systems, how the brain is subconsciously interpreting visual information, and recognising the need for agency, social affirmation, and the power of storytelling, all go a long way to maximising the impact of content.


Kate Pasterfield

Learning Strategy Consultant, Sponge Group .



Visit Stand G40, Learning Technologies, 4 – 5 May 2022, ExCel London.

Attend:‘My Year with a Neuroscientist: Scientific Insights Applied to Workplace Learning’ presented by Kate Pasterfield, 4 May, 14:00 – 14:30, Theatre 6.


  • brain
  • cognitive
  • development
  • engagement
  • information
  • learning
  • neuroscience
  • workplace
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