Episode 2: The Six Neuromyths You Need to Stop Believing About How People Learn
By Kate Pasterfield
In the drive to understand how people learn, a variety of theories have gained popular traction over the years. The problem is, some of these are more robust than others. Enter the ‘neuromyth’ – a false understanding of how the brain works, commonly repeated and believed due to its apparent scientific authenticity.
Research has shown that when explanations of psychological phenomena include neuroscientific information, they’re more satisfying to readers than explanations that don’t.1 What’s more, these beliefs are most prevalent amongst novices. The researchers found that those untrained in neuroscience are more susceptible to neuro-sounding claims.
You may think there’s no real problem believing in neuromyths. After all, many appear to contain a grain of truth and even sound like common sense. However, if a learning solution is justified with false evidence and claims, it can lead to ineffective and costly services that fail to get you the results you are looking for.
In this episode of Learning Science Unpacked, we explore six neuro-claims and decide – are they fact or fiction?
Myth 1: People Have Different Learning Styles
The claim. Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred “learning style”.
Why it sticks. Our experience tells us that people are different and, therefore, we see the value in personalising learning. Learning styles seem to offer an approach that tailor’s content to different people. Further, some argue that learning styles do exist, there just hasn’t been enough research to substantiate it yet.2
What’s the truth? It is true that we can express preferences about how we learn which seem to remain stable over time. Research by Pashler (2008) explains that there is ‘plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes… for processing different types of information.’3
The problem is that there’s no evidence to suggest that people learn more efficiently when receiving learning content in their preferred style. There is no psychological, educational, or neuroscientific basis for the claim.
What to do instead. Offering learners a choice of materials to suit a given context can be effective. Choice and agency increase engagement – an idea we leverage at Sponge through unique learning modalities that put the learner in the driving seat. Using information in different forms also improves learners’ ability to make links between different representations, which is important for future retrieval of information from memory.
Choosing learning strategies that are the right match for the material or skill to be learned is also important. Predictable examples of this might include using videos to demonstrate software, or physical or virtual experiences for practising physical tasks. As the learning objectives become more complex or nuanced, the selection process of technologies, media, and content should reflect this.
Myth 2: People are Either ‘Left-or Right-Brained’
The claim. People with left or right brain dominance learn differently.
Why it sticks. There is an awareness of the two hemispheres of the brain and a pervasive idea that so called right-brained people are more creative, whilst analytical, methodical thinkers are said to be left-brained.4
What’s the truth? It is true that some cognitive processes are lateralised (situated) to one side of the brain. Language is the most common example of this, with functions like grammar and vocabulary being left-lateralised.
However, doing anything – even picking up a cup – will activate both left and right hemispheres. Categorising people as left or right brained on this basis is therefore unsubstantiated, and there is no evidence that doing so increases people’s ability to learn.
What to do instead. Avoid the idea that the brain has a biological limitation. It is plastic and can be ‘built’ to a certain extent through learning. Instead, focus on the EBC’s, the three foundational elements of neuroscience that we covered in last month’s Learning Science Unpacked podcast.
Myth 3: You Can Up Your IQ With “Brain-training” Apps
The claim. Brain-training increases our IQ and sharpens our skills.
Why it sticks. There are many brain-training games on the market that claim to enhance our general cognitive abilities and improve memory.
What’s the truth? There is interesting research in this area to suggest that it might be possible to increase flexible intelligence - that is the ability to apply information in new situations - by expanding your memory capacity, in a laboratory setting.
However, the commercially available games have a lot of difficulty transferring beyond the task, and the current evidence suggests that such games will not improve general cognitive and executive function.5 In fact, in a landmark case, one brain training company was sued for making false scientific claims about their ability to improve brain function and minimise memory loss.6
What to do instead. Focus on specific activities that can be transferred into everyday life using real-world tasks that people can practise and excel at.
Myth 4: You Should Ignore Prior Knowledge
The claim. Activating prior knowledge in elearning has no relevance to learning new knowledge.
Why it sticks. ‘Testing’ learners using questions about a topic they have not yet been taught can seem unfair. Adults are uncomfortable not knowing things and this approach can be demotivating.
What’s the truth? When we learn, new information comes into our working memory. But for it to be meaningful, we need to connect it to prior knowledge. This can happen automatically, where the brain creates links between relevant knowledge it already has and knowledge it is in the act of learning. This makes it more likely people will understand the meaning of the new information.
However, if you ask a question that is far beyond that which the learner already knows, this will not be helpful. Getting this precise balance right is difficult. It requires a deep understanding of your learner group and their profiles – something Sponge works in partnership with learning and development teams to map early, through data-led insights and analysis.
What to do instead. Scaffold learning, asking questions that are relevant and contextual to the topic to help learners activate prior knowledge. Find the sweet spot: avoid overly-stretching questions about a topic, or low-stakes questions that appear to be testing people.
Myth 5: You Won’t Remember Much of What You Read
The claim. You only remember 10% of what you read, but 90% of what you do.
Why it sticks. If you’re in learning, you’ll have heard of Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience. It’s been widely misinterpreted but seems to stick around because it appears to justify active learning experiences. And it comes in a nice pyramid diagram, easy to copy and paste into presentations.
What’s the truth? There is a small amount of research in lab settings that has shown it’s possible to listen very passively without processing the information. It’s true that if speaking aloud, more effort must be made than when listening, and writing uses more effort again, activating additional areas of the brain.
However, this approach is too simple. Multiple representations are needed for all people to learn and remember, so choosing just one mode of learning provides a limited and less effective experience. Further, it doesn’t address the fact that it’s quite possible to learn the wrong things from experience.
What to do instead. Avoid prescriptions and focus on the processes of learning. If you’re asking people to read, write, and do relevant activities, consider how this will assist them in developing multiple representations and support making links between them for better retention.
Myth 6: Listening to Music While Learning Improves Results
The claim. Listening to binaural music improves learning, memory, and concentration.
Why it sticks. Instinctively, we feel calming music and sounds seem to relax the mind, surely a good state to be in when learning?
What’s the truth? Some research has shown that wearing a device to provide binaural beats does entrain brain rhythms and people have reported that they feel more relaxed.
However, the research doesn’t indicate that it increases a person’s ability to learn, and there are no effects that last beyond listening that would support learning. The reported relaxing effect may be helpful for those who feel anxious about learning.
What to do instead. People may wish to listen to binaural music to help them relax before attending learning or training.
How You Can Apply This to Your Learning Programmes
Neuromyths can be pervasive in our industry. When choosing a learning solutions provider or service, have the confidence to question claims that appear to offer a silver bullet to learning, and focus on what works:
- Favour approaches that promote learner choice and agency
- Collaborate with designers who know how to match strategies to the skills being taught
- Prioritise sophisticated learner mapping at the ‘Discovery’ phase, rather than accepting broad-brush categorisation of learners
- Aim for innovative design experiences that are built to enhance specific skills, connect new knowledge and prior knowledge, and offer a mix of activities, for the strongest chance of recall and transfer into work
Now, time for some binaural music.
1 The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Available at: https://direct-mit-edu.ezproxy.uwe.ac.uk/jocn/article/20/3/470/4473/The-Seductive-Allure-of-Neuroscience-Explanations
2 Collins, S. (2019) Neuroscience For Learning and Development. 2nd ed. London: Kogan Page, p.95.
3 Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/wrprm2zt
4 Left Brain vs. Right Brain: What Does This Mean for Me? Available at: https://tinyurl.com/3uvchtvd
5 Brain training habits are not associated with generalized benefits to cognition: An online study of over 1000 "brain trainers". Available at: https://tinyurl.com/4f94spje
6 Lumosity to Pay $2 Million to Settle FTC Deceptive Advertising Charges for Its “Brain Training” Program. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/dvpmpm3s