4 Proven Ways to Create Courses That Support Human Learning and Cognition

man_despair_problemThe human brain can do amazing things: It can learn new concepts, solve complex problems, and memorize and recall information and facts. How this complex structure works has been the subject of study for millennia.

As an instructional designer, you can leverage your learners’ brain power to create more effective course content and design. Here are some tips and best practices that should help eLearning content designers create instructionally sound learning materials.


  1. Less is More: This design principle is heavily influenced by Hick’s Law, which, simply stated, guides designers to limit learners’ options as much as possible. The more bells and whistles you incorporate into the design, the less effective the course becomes.
  2. The Power of Stories: Emotion and memory come together in our brain. Neurobiology research cited in the Harvard Business Review shows that the human brain reacts more favorably to a well-crafted storyline than to drab facts and figures, or “boring” principles and theories. Therefore, when designing your content you should try to wrap your main message around an engaging, emotional, and memorable story or fictional “plot”. Interactive storytelling will help learners absorb the content more readily.
  3. Snacks Rather Than Full Meals: Unlike a computer’s memory, the human brain is not designed like a sponge that soaks up unlimited amount of new information for sustained periods of time. Researchers have determined that, on average, brain can handle 20 minutes of focused attention. Course designers should structure lessons as bite-sized snacks of 20-minutes in length, rather than a full-blown 60-minute 4-course meals.
  4. Leverage Short-Term Memory: Researchers have determined that our brain can store approximately 7 pieces of information. Therefore, when designing course content, avoid using extensively “busy” slides or lists that contain dozens of bullet points. Also, keep away from using long sentences that stretch into five or six lines. Otherwise, learners will quickly tune out, and the information will not make it into the memory.

As we all know, the human brain is an extremely complex organ, but one with surprising powers of memory, retention, recall and cognition. However, these capabilities aren’t unlimited. To help learners use maximize the power of their brain, and to effectively meet instructional goals set out for a course, eLearning specialists must make educated design decisions.

You can find more information about memory and cognition in my Instructional Design for ELearning book.



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