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ATD Blog

Using What We Understand About Neuroscience to Make More “Aha” Moments

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

In a recent post we looked at the neuroscience behind “aha” moments in the classroom—specifically, putting some space and time between yourself and the challenge you’re trying to solve; making the learning space psychologically safe; doing some simple, repetitive actions; and engaging in physical activity.

This post continues the aha theme as we discover how to turn the science into the action. ATD Education facilitators Nikki O’Keeffe, Nelson Santiago, and Carrie Addington provide some tips on how they go about creating these light bulb learning moments.

Adding Space and Time

First, be smart about breaks. Santiago notes, “People can sit and listen to an instructor for only so long. Rather than having one 15-minute break, split it into two or three breaks totaling 15 minutes.”

O’Keeffe emphasizes that even a momentary break can be helpful. If, for example, you’re a facilitator instructing on computer software, suggest to the class that they pause, look away from the computer, and give their neighbor a high-five after a tough module.

Creating a Safe Space

Santiago spends the first 10-15 minutes on the first day of a facilitation engaging each person in the classroom and getting to know them by name. This builds a trust connection, which makes for a safe environment.

Another way to help nurture a psychologically safe environment, explains O’Keeffe, is to “Have music playing before the session, as learners are entering the room. This lets them know upfront they’ll be in a welcoming environment. This should make them feel more comfortable and drawn to participate.”


O’Keeffe suggests using a round robin in which the facilitator goes around the classroom with participants answering questions. To ensure safety and comfort, allow learners to “pass” or “do a shout-out” to a table partner if they don’t know the answer.

Incorporating Physical Activity

To get participants up out of their chairs for a bit of physical activity, Addington presents this idea for breakout groups: Denote four different corners in the classroom and ask a question with four possible choices. Their answers will decide which corner and group the participants join.

Putting Learners First

“To help manage the cognitive load that a naturally complex or dense course puts on learners, trainers aim to work with an engaging design, but they need to pivot when they see learner engagement decreasing,” Addington advises. A great trainer is one who reads the classroom and understands when learners are tiring or have had too much.

Santiago echoes the need to focus on participants. “Remember that your discussion is ultimately meant to help your learners. You can’t guarantee success, but the more you empower them throughout the session, the more likely they are to own the content and apply it when they leave.”


Seeing Results

What can facilitators expect to get out of a session they’ve gone the extra mile for? Consider some of the following aha moments from ATD learners.

From an ATD Master Trainer participant: “I walked into this experience thinking that I knew training, but was still looking for the icing on the cake with a formal session. I quickly realized that while what I had been doing wasn't bad, it wasn't the optimum experience I could be providing to my participants. Taking this training really allowed me to understand where my areas of opportunities are and allowed me to better understand how to make the change needed to improve both myself and my training techniques. I am walking away from this experience with a fresh perspective and with new tools under my belt that I'm eager to use.”

An Instructional Design Certificate course participant had this to say: “For someone who is just getting into instructional design, it provides a great detailed foundation of the tools you will need to begin and be successful. I am feeling inspired to propose and start a project as soon as I get back to work.”

And from an Essentials for Writing Impactful Learning Objectives class: “I had heard of Bloom’s [Taxonomy] because a colleague told me to post the verb chart on my bulletin board. I never realized that there was a whole science and structure to why you choose certain verbs. This makes so much more sense now that someone has explained it to me!”

Start incorporating neuroscience into your next facilitation and see the light bulbs go on!

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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Great tips, yes! But, all of these tips were well known prior to "neuroscience." Labeling these as neuroscience de-legitimizes their true origins in cognitive and behavioral science. Sure, "Neuroscience" sells, but at what price to the legitimacy of a non-biological approach to learning?
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Very concise article with a few worthwhile tips on making your training more brain-friendly. Thanks Patty. Enjoy!
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Powerful insights from the neurosciences, Patty. We go into these concepts in more detail in our ATD course, Essentials of Brain-Based Learning. I love teaching this course, and we're starting our next session next week. This is a great reminder!
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