I’ve seen more entrepreneurs jumping on the online course bandwagon lately. And, time and time again, most of them make the same mistake. They figure creating an extraordinary course comes down to a mix of business savvy and subject matter expertise. As they have plenty of both, they jump right into course creation without even considering the impact that neuroscience and human psychology have on client retention. Because of this, they often have nothing to show for their hard work but unhappy clients, low completion rates, and reduced profit margins.

Luckily, you don’t need to be a doctor in neuroscience to set your students (and business) up for success. You just need to take advantage of the following learning science principles.


Brain Science Principles You Can Use to Improve Learning Outcomes

1- The Primacy and Recency Effects

When given a sequence of information, people’s memory tends to get fuzzy in the middle. Things heard first and last in a lesson or speech often have the most staying power. This phenomenon is often referred to as the primacy and recency effect. And, it’s something you need to keep in mind during the course creation process. 

To take advantage of this tendency, experts recommend:

  • Putting key information at the beginning or end of each lesson or module
  • Breaking long onscreen lists into two or more columns. This gives your students more top and bottom items to remember.
  • Recap all-important points at the end of your video—especially if it was originally said in the middle.

2- Take Advantage of the Power of Goal Setting to Propel Your Students Forward

Your learners’ goals and how closely they align with your course content is a big part of what separates someone who completes your course from somebody who calls it quits. If you do not incorporate their desired outcomes into your curriculum, you’re going to have a hard time motivating them to finish your course. So, be sure to organize your course material and milestones in a way that supports your students’ goals. 

To help you map out your online course in relation to your learners’ desired outcomes, I have created this free worksheet


3- Use the Power of Small Wins to Keep Students Motivated

If you spent four hours trying to empty out a dinghy and had nothing to show for it, you’d end up feeling pretty demotivated. But even the tiniest sign of progress would be enough to keep you going. Your learners are no different. Research by Harvard’s Teresa Amabile found that few things motivate people as much as progress. More shocking, however, was her conclusion that people find more fulfillment in steady, incremental progress than the occasional bagging of an elephant.

Not sure how to define a tangible goal? Struggling to get past airy, motivational statements? Click here to learn more about SMART goals and how they can help you and your students get ahead.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge your learners, however. Instead, you need to aim for somewhere in the middle. This stops overachievers from becoming bored and pushes less motivated learners forward. Progress is powerful. Be sure to end each module by reminding your students how far they’ve come. If you can include a prominent progress bar at the top of every page, even better!

4- Use Generative Learning and Existing Knowledge to Build Connections

A successful online course is a memorable one. That means encouraging your students’ brains to form new synapses and neural pathways relating to your subject. There are two main ways to do this: contextualizing and generative learning.

A good online educator finds a way to link course materials with things their students already understand. This makes it easier for them to comprehend the information that’s being presented to them. Not sure how this works? Think back to when you were first learning fractions. Do you remember how hard it was to understand what ¾ of something looked like? How about the way everything clicked when the teacher started talking about pizza? This principle is why case studies are so important to learning.

Tying new information to pre-existing knowledge is only half the battle. Now, you’ve got to get them to use it! This principle is generative learning—the idea that creating and synthesizing with newly formed knowledge improves data retention.

Ben Franklin once said something that sums up the idea of generative learning pretty well: “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I understand.” In other words, if you want your students to learn, they need to make use of the information they were given. Ask them to reflect on the content and to draw connections between existing knowledge and that shared in your course. Including long-form questions on your quizzes and posting self-reflection questions on the community forum, for instance, encourage both synthesis and improved comprehension.

5- Use Contrast and Variety to Command Attention

Do you like listening to somebody drone on in monotone? Would you be enthralled by a 60-slide presentation that was all black and white with no pictures? Probably not. In fact, you’d likely be bored out of your mind. When there is little to separate one piece of information from the next, the human mind tends to lose focus. That’s where interleaving and other contrast-driven learning strategies come into play. To keep your students engaged, try doing things like:

  • Changing the tone of your voice throughout your lectures
  • Breaking your lectures up with multiple-choice questions, reading selections, and quizzes
  • Switching up the colors and backgrounds used 
  • Bringing in testimonials from other experts
  • Varying the types and cadence of assignments given
  • Writing notifications and questions in unexpected ways
  • Weaving surprising facts into your content

6- Repetition Is Your Friend

Committing previously unknown stuff to your brain means forming new neural pathways. If left to rot for too long, new information can quickly decay.

But, repeating this information can help strengthen those connections and move figures from short term to long term memory. This lack of reinforcement is why you have a hard time remembering obscure facts but can recall commercial jingles for years after you’ve seen them. To capitalize on this brain science fact, make sure your course sets aside time to reexamine important information. Quizzes, flashcards, and summary sections are a great way to do this.

Though there’s no real proof there’s anything magic about repeating something seven times; experts agree that it takes somewhere between 6 and 20 iterations of something for a memory or concept to stick.

7- Prizification Drives Engagement and Retention

People love rewards. If you’re someone who’s subscribed to our blog, that should come as no surprise. Studies have shown our dopamine levels rise when prizes are included. The presence of a digital badge—and other gamification elements—naturally pushes learners towards the finish line. Here are a few strategies we recommend you use to help tap into your students’ competitive natures:

  • Offering a unique badge for each module completed
  • Using a leaderboard to showcase and highlight high achievers
  • Awarding signed certificates to learners who successfully complete your courses
  • Giving out bonuses to people who jump on a deal
  • Constantly remind them of what they’re missing out on if they don’t complete your course

8- Fill Your Course with Interesting Visuals

Our brains understand visual information a lot easier than text-based content. How much better? Scientists have found that our brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text and that 90 percent of the data in the brain is visual in nature. If you want a successful online course, you need to spend time creating visually attractive visuals, for instance: infographics, storytelling pictures, and graphs to go with any data given. This helps your learners form long-lasting associations with your content. 

9- Encourage Autonomy and Choice (But Don’t Go Overboard)

According to self-determination theory, a hypothesis tested by Deci and Ryan, students are more motivated to learn when they feel like willing, autonomous participants. A learner who feels they have control over their learning environment is also more likely to challenge themselves and persist with difficult tasks. Fortunately, there’s no need to turn your online course into an anarchist’s playground. Even offering small decision points is enough. 

To make them feel more in control, you can:

  • Let learners decide the industry, company, or topic they’ll use for assignments
  • Give your learners opportunities to express themselves with essay questions
  • Offer alternative learning tracks for advanced and beginning students
  • Provide optional reading materials that give students the illusion of choice

Now You Know How to Use Neuroscience Principles to Take Your Course to the Next Level!

Human psychology and the science of learning shape the way learners perceive and process information. It’s also a huge component of online course success. As a course creator, it’s important that you understand how people learn. Fortunately, the crash course above should be enough to get you started on the right foot. Though it seems like a lot, it all comes down to creating a variety of assignments and activities that allow your learners to use your content in multiple ways. 

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