Research is continually advancing our knowledge of how psychology and neuroscience can support effective learning. As a result, several neuroscience models are being applied to learning design and delivery, and there’s evidence that commonly used models, such as learning styles, are oversimplified.

This factsheet looks at the influence of cognitive styles and neuroscience on learning. It also explores emerging thinking from neuroscience and examines brain-friendly learning models such as RAD, SCARF and AGES. The factsheet concludes by considering the emerging concept of neuroplasticity in learning.

Key takeaways

  • The validity of common psychology-based learning models such as ‘learning styles’ is being challenged.
  • There’s a shift from the concept of fixed learning styles to flexible learning strategies and learner choice.
  • It’s important to consider the process of how people think and learn, known as ‘metacognition’.
  • ‘Cognitive overload’ can be avoided if learning is presented in chunks and made enjoyable.
  • Learning increases if rewards are maximised and threats minimised.
  • Engagement and retention increase if learning has personal relevance.
  • Neuroplasticity shows that learning and change can take place for those willing to engage.

CIPD viewpoint

Research into the psychology of learning and neuroscience is providing significant insights that improve the design and delivery of learning. Previously, too much emphasis has been placed on over-simplistic models such as learning styles, which suggest that a learner has a predisposition to benefit from certain methods of learning.

Recent findings from psychology and neuroscience studies offer new perspectives on how to facilitate learning in a ‘brain-friendly’ format in which learning transfer and retention is more likely. However, this has yet to be translated into widespread changes in practice, leading to a missed opportunity for many organisations to enhance learning effectiveness.

As research in this area is continually advancing, there’s a need to constantly assess the validity and application of emerging methods.

Neuroscience helps us understand how we learn at work

In this interview with Jan Hills, Founding Partner and Head of Heart + Brain, we explore how neuroscience helps us understand how people learn – and change behaviour – in the workplace.

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Jan Hills, Head of Heart + Brain

Please scroll to the bottom of the factsheet to view the transcript of this podcast.

​This factsheet was last updated by Andy Lancaster.

Andy Lancaster

Andy Lancaster: Head of Learning and Development

Andy has more than 25 years’ experience in learning and organisational development in commercial, technological and not-for-profit organisations, and has also worked in a consultancy role.

As Head of Learning and Development Content at the CIPD, Andy is responsible for professional development and learning products, digital content and qualifications for L&D, coaching and mentoring, management and leadership, and business psychology.

Andy also plays a key role in leading the direction and delivery of the CIPD's wider new vision for L&D. He was part of the team that developed the CIPD's new L&D qualifications, oversees the Leaders in Learning Network, and is helping pioneer online digital learning at the Institute.

Andy has a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (FCIPD), the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI), and the Learning and Performance Institute (FLPI). He regularly speaks at conferences, writes articles on behalf of the CIPD, and is the co-author of Webinars Pocketbook.

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Philippa Lamb: Ruth Stuart is research adviser for L&D at the CIPD. I asked her why understanding this sort of thinking is important from the CIPD’s point of view. 

Ruth Stuart: When we look at concepts like neuroscience or concepts relating to neuroscience like intuition and insight what they really give us is a fresh perspective on learning and the learning process, and not just learning but all aspects of HR management. So these ideas really do contribute to new thinking around how we approach rewards, how we approach change management or how people learn in the workplace. There's such a vast spectrum of new insight and new ideas out there that we can really learn from. 

Philippa Lamb: And Ruth gave me her key points to take from Professor Sadler-Smith’s research. 

Ruth Stuart: I think the key point for me from his research is really around understanding the insight process and how we gain insight and how we come up with new ideas. So often things will just come into our mind and we might not have any knowledge of the process behind it. We have that ‘ah-ha’ moment when we find the solution but we don’t necessarily know the steps that have happened before that and what Professor Eugene’s research really does is tell us how it works, so gives us a really clear step by step process for ideation and insight generation really work and that gives us more self-awareness, if we know how it works we can really understand the process that are at play.