5 brain-based rules for designing and delivering better learning


There are many books I have read over the years that have had a profound effect on me, but none more so than John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving At Work, Home and School.

A colleague of mine, Nanette Miner, introduced me to this great work around 5 years ago —and I will always be grateful to her!

Medina is a molecular biologist that knows a thing or three about how the brain works. Research (both his and others) has started to lead us to a better understanding of how our learners think and how that should inform the way we approach designing and delivering great, engaging and effective learning.

Lets look at five of these brain rules and what that means for us as learning professionals.

Survival: Plan introductions to reduce inhibitions among learners.

Man has evolved significantly since our cave-dwelling days — we’re the most dominant species on the planet because we have come together in tribes, created relationships and built communities.

We are very social animals. And, in learning, we need to know who else is in the learning event with us.

Make sure you take the time to get learners introducing themselves, getting to know one another better — it will lead to learners becoming more comfortable and leads to a more collaborative experience where learners learn with you, not just from you.

Attention: Create stimuli that captures and maintains attention.

Medina’s rule number four should come as no surprise to us — we do not pay attention to boring things.

Our attention spans are getting shorter year after year as we fight the hundreds of stimuli that crave our attention every minute of every day.

Learning has evolved, and, as learners, we’re no longer content with a jam-packed two-day workshop. We want learning to be shorter, sharper and more convenient than ever before.

Medina’s research tells us that our attention wanes after just 10 minutes — bad news for those of you still providing 15-minute lectures!

Ensure that you are “paying attention” to this 10 minute rule — change up the stimuli for your learners before you reach the 10-minute mark and start to lose them.

Stress: Limit the stress we put upon our learners.

As human beings we have a “fight or flight” mechanism built into each and every one of us — a result of having to evade being eaten by sabre-toothed cats way back in time.

In learning, stress can be seen as good and bad, but we should be managing that stress.

Asking learners to step up and do a role-play or make a presentation to the group before they are ready is very stressful and not conducive for learning.

Some of you may argue otherwise, saying that a healthy level of stress is good to replicate the “real world” we live in.

However, we do need to manage the learning environment that we create so that our learners’ fight or flight mechanism is not tested so much.

Vision: Appeal to the senses, images work best.

Vision is the strongest of all of our senses. Think about how an image can bring back so many memories, how you can remember so much about a person by seeing their face.

We need to harness that as we create visuals for our learning.

Medina calls for less text and more pictures on our presentations. (Take a look at your slides. Are they text heavy?) He goes on to suggest using animations appeals to our sense of vision.

Medina’s research shows us that if we provide the learning by using speech alone (oral), then only 10% will be retained. If we use visual only, that goes up to 35%. But when we combine both, retention rises to 65%.

And it’s not just adding visuals to our slides — its adding them into participant guides, job aids and any other opportunity to increase learning retention.

Two other books that made a huge impact on me tackle the subject of good slide design — Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. I guarantee they will change the way you look at slides!

Exploration: Allow learners to explore for themselves.
Mankind managed to put a man on the moon, circumnavigate the globe, sail vast oceans and dive great depths in the pursuit of exploration. We are powerful and natural explorers.

Medina states: “We must do a better job of encouraging lifelong curiosity.” This natural ability and desire to explore is something we need to build into our learning events.

Three ways the brain loves to learn: exploring the world around us, trial and error and acting out the scenarios of real life. (Using role plays and case studies are great ways of tapping into our need for exploration.)

There are many more elements that Medina covers in his book that can help us create far more effective learning — but this is a good start!

As educators, we owe it to our learners (and their organisations) to craft and deliver learning that is truly effective, and we can do that by keeping Medina’s Brain Rules as a constant companion on our bookshelves or e-readers.

What else would you suggest?
How has the book affected you as an educator? Share your thoughts below.

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About the author

David Smith is Global Director of Virtual Learning Solutions at TMA World, he is passionate about virtual working whether communicating, meeting, presenting or training virtually. He is also a regular speaker at international training conferences and Citrix webinars. In his spare time he enjoys many sports (unfortunately, most as a spectator), has a family that keeps him young, loves Spanish Tapas and great red wines. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter More blog posts by David Smith ››
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  • Tolsa

    I agree with the theory as written above. Visuals, low stress, a good introduction etc all creates a good education climate. But this counts also for storytelling, and giving good feedback. But I also think that a good connection between audience and trainer is an important basis.

  • Ben

    I once attended a conference and in 15 minutes the guest speaker was done! I was both surprised and satisfied at the same time. Other speakers had 45 minutes to an hour but the guest speaker in 15 minutes delivered the most interesting,captivating and enlightening paper I had heard in a long while.

    Reading through this blog makes me feel he must have studied this research work and applied with excellently. For weeks everyone who was at that conference kept recalling that presentation.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  • Thanks David I welcome anything that assists me to get my message across.

    Best Regards

  • shabbygardener

    I think I have been getting some things right – guided by instinct rather than knowledge

  • Viv Cole

    Lots of practical and helpful points. However I do question whether Medina’s percentages are backed up by real research – sounds horribly like a rehash of the mythical Dale’s Cone of experience. For an example of this being debunked see http://www.willatworklearning.com/2006/05/people_remember.html
    Would you be able to provide a link to support Medina’s claim?

  • A. Razak Mohammed

    As a young growing e-learning professional, these practical points in designing and delivering interactive learning are very important. They have shaped my thinking processes in instructional design. What i will like to add is that learners retain better when the courses are designed to put them in the fore front as ” Students as Teachers”


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