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Top 6 mistakes when designing learning experiences according to neuroscience

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change and adapt. It's how we learn new knowledge, skills and behaviors. Unfortunately, neuroplasticity is much harder to achieve for adult brains compared to those of younger people. However, by avoiding these mistakes below, learning experiences can be designed that promote efficient and effective learning in adults.

Make sure to avoid the key pitfalls below when designing your learning experiences to achieve the neuroplasticity that sustains learning.

1) Not enough opportunity for mistakes

Neuroscience shows that mistakes are one of the most crucial ingredients for learning. Errors are the signal that prompts brains to change. When we realize we've made a mistake, our brain releases neurochemicals that tell our neural-circuits they have to change. Noticing mistakes, i.e., that something that we aimed for was not achieved, is one of the largest drivers of neuroplasticity.

Take home: Make sure you incorporate many opportunities for learners to make mistakes and get feedback.

2) Not enough intensity of focus

It is a myth that everything we experience leads to learning. Instead, adult brains require heightened states of focus in order to rewire. In fact, neurochemicals related to stress need to be released in order to prime the brain for learning. If these neurochemicals related to stress and focus are not released, learning will not occur.

Take home: Make sure your learning experiences are interactive and engaging enough to evoke the intensity of focus needed for long-term learning to occur.

3) Stakes are too low

Related to the above point, adult brains don't change as readily as children's brains. However, the one exception to this is when stakes are high. Research shows that when adults had to learn a new task, they learned more slowly than youths. However, when adults had to learn a new task in order to eat at all (vs. eat nothing at all), they were able to learn as quickly as children.

Take home: Motivate your learning experience with relevant, high-stakes scenarios.

4) Expecting it to feel like flow

Learning and flow are two very different states. Flow is the expression of abilities we already have. Learning is a state of changing the wiring in our brains, which, as mentioned above, requires both intense focus and making mistakes. Focus takes effort and making mistakes can be frustrating. Neither of these feels easy like the state of flow. Instead, it is the experience of effortful frustration that prompts neuroplasticity.

Take home: Optimal learning comes with effort and making mistakes, experiences that are often linked to frustration. Embracing the strain of effort and the frustration of making mistakes as necessary and good for progress is key for successful learning.

5) Learning too much at once

When adults try to learn too much at once, they never achieve their full learning potential. Studies show that adult brains often cannot achieve large shifts in neuroplasticity all at once in the way younger brains can. However, adult brains are able to make large changes, comparable to younger brains, when the changes are accumulated over a series of smaller, incremental changes. This means smaller episodes of focused learning with smaller bits of information.

Take home: It's a mistake to try to learn a lot of information in one bout as an adult. Design learning experiences bite-sized with smaller bits of information delivered in shorter amounts of time.

6) Not resting after learning to let it consolidate

Neuroplasticity doesn't actually occur during the actual moments of learning. In fact, when you are engaged in the learning activity, your brain releases neurochemicals that only prime the brain with what parts eventually need to change. It's as if you are using a highlighter pen to mark your neural circuits for future change. The actual changes in brain wiring only occur during rest after the learning activity. If rest doesn't occur, e.g., if you are distracting yourself with stress, other activities, or even scrolling on the phone, learning will not consolidate effectively.

Take home: The period after the learning activity is when neuroplasticity actually can occur. Design learning experiences that stick by allowing space for the mind to rest after a learning session, and make sure your learners get a good night's sleep.

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