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The Neuroscience of How E-Learning Blends Into Our Brain

Posted by Joe Moriarty on July 30, 2018

In Learning Culture

E-Learning Brain


There is a reason why 77 percent of American companies offer online corporate LMS training to improve the job skills and professional development of their employees.

It's because it works so well.

The secret, according to industry analysts, is that e-learning blends naturally into how our brains are wired to learn.

There have been a host of theories about how we absorb and incorporate learning, but none have had the impact of David Kolb's model of the learning cycle. In his 1984 book called “Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development,” Kolb explains the four conditions that must be present for our brains to engage in the learning process.

They are concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. All four stages of the learning cycle are trapped by the presentation of online learning programs.

Concrete Experience:

Concrete experience means when the learner is assigned a task or theory to learn. Kolb pointed out that we don't learn by just watching or reading or even listening. Instead, we learn  by doing.

The act of engaging in e-learning means the student has to take a more engaged role in the process of learning than if they are just sitting in a classroom setting and listening to a lecture. This triggers this first condition. The act of downloading the lesson and pulling it up on their computer screen, signing in and preparing to learn ignites the brains.

Reflective Observation:

Reflective observation is when we take time out from doing a lesson and step back to review what we have done. E-learning promotes self-paced learning, where employees are much more inclined to go back and review difficult passages or concepts to make sure they understand, rather than press forward. In a classroom setting, however, they are not inclined to ask the instructor to repeat an instruction or knowledge for fear of looking like they couldn't keep up with their peers.

Abstract Conceptualization:

Abstract conceptualizations is when we try to make sense of what we are learning. It  involves interpreting events and the differences between what they are doing and what they know. When e-learning is tailored to specific work situations, as it is in most corporate settings, the learner can more quickly interpret the events within the contexts of the new knowledge they are gaining.


Active Experimentation:

Finally, active experimentation refers to putting what we are learning into practice. The faster we can use what we learn, the more we will retain it. E-learners are more inclined to take each lesson and look for ways to apply their new knowledge immediately. Because the pace of learning is more individualized, they can learn, implement and then repeat it on a continual cycle of improvement.


Dr. James Zull picked up on this theory and its applications to e-learning in his book, “The Art of Chaning the Brain.”

He suggested that because we now have a better grasps on how the learning cycle occurs, we can build it into our e-learning programs and create a more flexible approach to learning which is very effective.

E-learning is a way to let learners learn naturally through their instinctive processes. They actively create knowledge as opposed to passively absorb content, which allows for them to learn more and retain it longer.

The gist of modern learning theories that form the basis for the work of Kolb and Zull suggests that learning is a process and the goal of human resources departments should be to encourage that process and measure participation as opposed to outcomes.

They also believe that learning must be seen as a continuous process, not just the occasional one-day seminar.

Traditional classroom learning is more focused on the student learning from the teacher. However, in e-learning, as the researchers point out, it is more a point of the student learning through the process of taking in knowledge and then testing it against their real-life experiences. In the process of transforming and using their knowledge, they retain it and create new knowledge.

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