ATD Blog

What Do You Know About Brain Science and Adult Learning?

Thursday, April 14, 2016

We’re hearing a lot these days about how the talent development community can use what experts know about brain science (or neuroscience) to improve adult learning. In fact, we often hear training suppliers and L&D consultants discuss how their products and services take advantage of the latest neuroscience research. But exactly what do we know about the intersection of brain science and adult learning?

Let’s start our exploration by answering a key question. (Select the BEST answer, and don’t worry about whether it is “correct.” Just have some fun.)  

How much have we learned from brain science in the last 10 years that we can directly apply to adult learning?

A. We have learned a great deal from brain science.

B. We have learned some key items from brain science.

C. We have learned little from brain science.

Case in Point: Remember the Baby Einstein videos, acquired by Walt Disney, that vowed to make babies smarter, based on brain science? Lawsuits claimed that not only were the declarations false, but several studies revealed that children under two years of age should not watch any television, including DVDs.

Maybe this was the beginning of questioning “neuromyths” in learning. This one happened to be a neuromyth about learning in infants, but what about neuromyths for adult learning?

Perhaps the chief neuromyth about brain science and adult learning is that we actually HAVE learned a great deal about adult learning—when really we are just starting to study this area of  science. According to De Bruyckere, Kirschner, & Hulshof, most of what we attribute to neuroscience is actually coming from cognitive science, not neuroscience. With that in mind, the answer to our multiple-choice question is C.


What’s the Difference Between Cognitive Science and Neuroscience?

Cognitive science has to do with the mind and mental processes, such as thinking, learning, and problem solving at the human (or other organism) level. Neuroscience has to do with the biology of the nervous system, including how the brain works, at the anatomical level such as neurons.

De Bruyckere, Kirschner, & Hulshof assert in Urban Myths About Learning and Education that, at this time, there are only two conclusions from neuoroscience that learning can use: “For the time being, we do not really understand all that much about the brain…. More importantly, it is difficult to generalize what we do know into a set of concrete precepts of behavior, never mind devise methods for influencing that behavior.”

Why Do We Use Neuro When We Really Mean Cognitive?

Some experts call this a play for status. Cognitive science is more closely related to psychology, and neuroscience is more closely related to biology. Psychology is considered by some to be less scientific. Consequently, people may substitute the word neuro where it simply doesn’t belong.

What most people don’t know is that cognitive research has taught us a great deal about how people learn. More importantly, L&D professionals can apply this knowledge to directly improve training. (For more on this, read my other articles and take a look at the references supplied. I am a very lucky person who gets to write about what we know will improve adult learning!)


Bottom line: When you hear claims about neuro or brain related to training, you should ask: Is it cognitive science or is it made up?

Interested in learning more? Hear Patti discuss this in more detail in an exclusive podcast.

Where Can You Learn More?

De Bruyckere, P, Kirschner, P. A. & Hulshof, C.D. (2015). Urban myths about learning and education. Academic Press.

Jensen, E. (2000). Brain based learning: A reality check. Educational Leadership, (57)7, 76-80.


Learn everything you need to know about adult learning principles with ATD’s new Adult Learning On Demand Certificate. Enroll today and start your program immediately!

About the Author

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of TheOnline Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor forOnline Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.

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