Applying neuroscience to L&D initiatives

By Ruth Stuart: Research Adviser, CIPD

At our CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition in November we held a panel discussion exploring how findings from neuroscience can be applied to learning and development practice. We had fantastic participation from the audience and lots of insightful questions. We didn't have time to answer everything during the session, so here our panel have shared their thoughts on five key questions from the audience.

The panel

  • Beverley Aylott: Head of Leadership, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Jan Hills: Partner, Head Heart + Brain
  • Karen Bailey: Head of Competence Development, Volvo Group
  • Ruth Stuart: Research Adviser, CIPD

1. How do learning interventions look and feel different compared to conventional training interventions when integrating neuroscience?

Neuroscience tells us a lot about creating the environment in which people learn best and also about how to ensure learning, particularly in relation to changing behaviours, is achieved

So, a learning intervention informed by neuroscience would be:

  • challenging but not threatening
  • stimulating but not stressful
  • small chunks of input, frequent breaks, physical movement and time for quiet reflection
  • highly learner led; lots of choice and flexibility
  • activity-based, so learners are processing information and practicing new skills
  • lots of stuff around peer to peer work e.g. coaching trios.

One approach that works really well is to ask small groups to 'teach' each other something, you provide the concept/theory and they then have to create a mini training session for their colleagues.

Also you would always see pre-module activities and post-module activities to 'prime' and 'embed' learning.

2. How can neuroscience be used in the design of online learning methods?

Some learning professionals feel that neuroscience is just confirming how well good programmes have been designed for years. But one important difference is we now know why the design works. Also there are some findings that are signalling important design considerations.

Neuroscience has great insight into three key areas that will influence design. The first is how people learn and remember new information. For example people learn better if material is spaced out and repeated with a gap between learning events. This reinforces the memory and embeds the learning. Also research by David Creswell has shown that people are better able to understand complex data if they have time to reflect. Both of these are examples of neuroscience research which should influence the design of your learning programmes whether face to face or online.

The second area is how people are motivated to learn. Potentially telling people they need to do their job in a different way can create a threat response and in this state people are less able to learn and likely to be resistant to new ideas. Positioning new online learning or training in the right way to encourage curiosity reduces threat and helps people move towards a reward state, where they are more open to new ideas.

Thirdly, neuroscience has found that something like 70% of what we do is habitual and that will include our job. It is therefore essential that if you want people to behave differently you need to teach them how to create and embed new behavioural habits. In my experience very few programmes whether online or face to face do this, putting at risk the investment in the training.

3. How could you use neuroscience in customer service training?

Both the design and content of customer service training can be influenced by neuroscience. In terms of the design, many of the principles outlined in questions 1 and 2 are applicable and can be implemented to improve learner engagement and learning retention.

In terms of content, neuroscience can be used in a range of ways to help build greater self-awareness and empathy, to subsequently improve the quality of customer interactions. Here are some ideas:

  • Consider how the 'SCARF' model could be applied to customer service. For example do our customers feel their status is respected, that they have certainty over the situation and that the process has been fair?
  • Share information about the brain's natural 'threat response' and enable learners to think about how this might impact customer interactions (such as how an individual may react after receiving a complaint call).
  • Explore how neuroscience can be applied to client relationship building and initiatives designed to help improve the customer experience. For example how does the environment in which you meet, the time of day, or the information presented impact on engagement and customer interest?

 4. What are your thoughts on neuroscience vs. psychometrics and other insight methodologies?

There are a few psychometrics based on the brain but largely the two approaches are dealing with opposite sides of the coin. Neuroscience is explaining how the brain works at a biological level and thus how we might better understand behaviour and generalise across groups of people. Whilst this can be helpful, we always need to remember that we are not our brain and individuals may respond in different ways based on their history, motivation and beliefs.

Psychometrics is (mainly) generalising about behaviour and groups those generalisations based on motivation, beliefs etc. into patterns which may (or may not) help to understand and predict an individual's response to situations or their patterns of behaviour.

There is some work being done that is looking at psychometric measures and seeing if there are different brain based responses but it is very early days, and there is still quite a lot of controversy over research methods and the like. One area with robust results is the motivational preference, related to goal attainment (often called 'towards and away from'), which seems to have related brain functioning patterns which correspond to the preference.

5. With neuroscience findings changing so much and so quickly, how can we keep up?

It's true that neuroscience is a rapidly expanding and evolving field  - that's what makes it so exciting. But we know it's also a challenge to keep up, particularly when day-job demands need to take precedent. With this in mind here are some simple ways to first develop your knowledge, and then keep it up to date.

  • Use curation tools (such as to pull together online resources. With everything in one place you can refer back to articles, videos and podcasts when you have the time.
  • Look out for breakfast seminars, lunchtime University talks and evening networking events if you're keen to discuss neuroscience with others, but can't take a whole day out.
  • Follow neuroscientists on Twitter or Linked In to hear about the latest developments direct.
  • Encourage your team to search out information, and then share it so you're all aware of the key findings but are also able to build up separate areas of specialism.

It's also important to take a critical eye to findings you come across. Is the source reliable? and does it have validity in a workplace setting? Often discussing these issues with colleagues can be the best way to work out what's useful or not.

If you're interested in neuroscience why not read our latest research report: Neuroscience in action or access a range of additional resources on behavioural science here. We'd also love to hear how you've applied neuroscience to L&D in the comments below.

You can follow Ruth ion Twitter at:

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  • Thanks for sharing this Ruth.  I thoroughly enjoyed the session at ACE and endorse your observations.

    A couple of other points that were also made were:

    a) The brain works best in the morning.  Be aware that emotional and heavy-weight problems can be energy draining and can adversely impact on learning.

    b) The KOLB Learning Cycle is consistent with the latest neuroscience research findings

    c) Understanding the cause of chemical transmissions such as dopamine and oxytocin in the body, not just the brain, can help training designers create appropriate activities for effective learning.

  • 'Brain friendly learning' has been around for years as promoted by Kaizen Training for example ( ) however grounding the science of this through our growing understanding of what is 'brain friendly' is increasingly valuable.

    I am also glad to see Kolb still gets a look in!

  • A great article Ruth and a fascinating topic that all learning practitioners would benefit from learning more about.