Brain Research, Instructional Strategies, and E-Learning: Making the Connection

Written By

Chris Stape

September 28, 2009

Success is what happens when opportunity meets planning. Instructional design is a type of planning. You have probably planned for a variety of events in your life: vacations, weddings, or your financial future.

When you are planning a trip to a vacation destination, there are options. You can drive, or you can take a train or a plane. In the same way, planning instruction involves a variety of options (strategies) for helping your students achieve their destination: learning.

This article is about applying brain-compatible instructional strategies in an e-Learning environment. In general, a strategy is a plan, method, or series of maneuvers (stratagems) for obtaining a specific goal or result. Instructional strategies have the goal of helping students to learn and teaching students how to learn.

Advances in brain-scan technology provide information about brain function and learning. The most powerful findings indicate that the way we teach can physically change the brain. This in turn encourages us to teach with the brain in mind. Teaching with the brain in mind means applying the strategies you already know in a different way, or learning new strategies and how to apply them.

I’ve organized the content into four sections. First, I provide some background on the roots of brain-compatible learning strategies stemming from what research has learned via brain-scan technologies. Then I discuss the instructional strategies research has found to be most effective. Next, I’ll provide a structure to aid in deciding when to use a strategy. Finally, I’ll focus on the tactics for implementing a few of the brain-compatible strategies in an e-Learning environment.

Brain scan technology and learning

Neuroscience, using brain-imaging technologies, is finding out a lot about how the brain works. Some of the discoveries have implications for instruction. There are two major categories of brain-imaging technologies: there are those technologies that look at brain structure (the function of a particular part of the brain), and there are those that look at brain functions (how the parts interact with each other).

Research using brain-imaging technologies yields information about the processes of learning and remembering (see Figure 1). Knowing how the processes work allows us to identify pivotal elements in the learning environment. Instructional design can then incorporate them into learning strategies, leveraging them to enhance student learning and make our products more effective.

The major research findings with implications for teaching are:

  • Learning and retention are different.
  • There are different types of memory with different characteristics.
  • Memories are not stored intact.
  • Any form of logical grouping facilitates perception, comprehension, and retention.
  • No one teaching strategy is best.

Brain research findings have been used to gauge a variety of instructional strategies in order to identify those that mesh with how the brain works. In the book, Classroom Instruction that Works, the authors identify nine instructional strategies that affect student achievement. In order of effectiveness, these are:

  • Using comparing, contrasting, classifying, analogies, and metaphors
  • Summarizing and note taking (keyword outlines)
  • Reinforcing effort and giving praise
  • Homework and practice
  • Nonlinguistic representations (graphic organizers)
  • Cooperative learning
  • Setting objectives and providing feedback
  • Generating hypotheses
  • Questions, cues, and advanced organizers

You may find that some strategies lend themselves more easily to the e-Learning environment than others. For example, strategies that contain socially interactive components, such as cooperative learning, are a bit more challenging and more suited to Web 2.0 applications.

A description of each strategy

I combine the comparing, contrasting, classifying, analogies, and metaphor  into the category of bridging strategies. The intent of all of them is to aid the learner by connecting new information (bridging) to something the learner already knows. Brain research tells us that the brain physically changes when we learn, and that memories are not stored in a single location in the brain. Changing the brain is demanding work. When you reduce the amount of the brain that needs changing (that is, the amount to be learned), there is a better chance of new information getting into long-term storage and aiding recall. Connecting new knowledge to information that is already in long-term storage is like the difference between cooking a prepared microwave dinner and preparing a dinner from fresh ingredients. Bridging to information already known (prepared ingredients) saves all the effort and energy of cleaning and cutting, and reduces cooking time.

Summarizing and note taking reduce the amount of information the learner needs to get into long-term storage. Each is a form of chunking strategy. The process filters information by deleting material, substituting material, and keeping material. The amount of information to be retained is directly proportional to the amount of energy and storage the brain must produce. For example, it is easier for you to remember a summation of the research findings with implications for teaching, than it is to remember all five of them. A summary could look like this: “Learning and retention are different, logical grouping helps, and no strategy is best.” Further, substituting in a summary allows for the use of information that is already known, and is easier for the brain than acquiring and storing new information. If you are already familiar with the different types of memory (short-term, working, and long-term), you could substitute that knowledge for “there are different types of memory with different characteristics” from the list of research findings presented earlier.

Reinforcing effort and giving praise can affect a learner’s motivation. Motivation is germane to learning because learning is an active process requiring conscious and deliberate activity. Learning involves the brain, the nervous system, and the environment in a process where they interplay to acquire information and skills. Motivation is like a car’s accelerator: it controls the cognitive energy supplied to the brain. The higher the level of motivation, the more focus and determination can be given to learning.

One of the keys to effective praise is that it focuses on the effort the learner has applied in accomplishing a task. Praise for outcomes that are achieved with little effort gives learners the message that effort is not valued. Avoid the unjustified “Great Job!” for efforts that require little more than clicking to the next screen.

Homework and practice fall into the general area of repetition strategies. Repetition strengthens the connection created in the brain when learning takes place. It is similar to blazing a new path through a jungle. The first time takes a lot of effort. The second time takes a little less effort and so on, until it becomes a relatively easy trail to transverse. Homework lends itself better to the asynchronous e-Learning environment that allows for independent study. Practice and e-Learning go together like chips and salsa. If practice is the chips, the computer is the salsa. The computer can tirelessly add a variety of flavors and spice to the chips. Some of the various flavors of practice include:

  • matching,
  • flash cards,
  • concert review,
  • games,
  • fill in the blank,
  • question and answer,
  • paraphrasing,
  • selecting,
  • crossword puzzles, and
  • word searches.

Figure 2 is an example of a practice session that is based on a slot machine. The learner spins each of the variables separately (randomization) and then selects an answer by clicking from options on the right. Feedback appears in the lower right corner. This example is used to memorize radiation exposure limits based on the variables of the regulatory agency setting the limit, and the parts of the body it applies to. The same method could be used for multiplication tables or other situations that contain two variables.

Figure 2 Slot machine example. Used with permission of Fluor Hanford Co. Richland, WA.


Nonlinguistic representations (graphic organizers are from the family of spatial strategies. These strategies mimic how the brain’s storage system works.

Cooperative learning is an instructional strategy in which students work together in groups, usually with the goal of completing a specific task. Brain research indicates information from the environment temporarily resides in our working memory. It also tells us that the longer information is processed in working memory, the greater the probability that retention will happen (long term memory). One factor influencing the amount of processing time in working memory is motivation.

The elements of a cooperative learning exercise include:

  • An esprit de corps (group members are linked with each other in a way that any one member cannot succeed unless everyone succeeds)
  • Defined goal or objective
  • Lines of communication sufficient to handle the media necessary to complete the objective (more crucial in an e-Learning environment)
  • Clear roles and responsibilities for the group
  • Individual and group accountability

Cooperative learning lends itself to the Learning 2.0 environment. Members of the group must have the necessary technical and interpersonal skills to be successful. Small groups of three to four members are the most effective.

Setting objectives and providing feedback have two influences on learning. The first is motivational. Objectives provide a finish line and tell the learners when they will have completed a learning task. Without an objective, a learning adventure would begin at the edge of an abyss that learners can’t see across. Objectives can generate intrinsic motivation when the learning task is related to the learners’ needs. The other function of objectives is to allow the brain to recall previous strategies and tactics that have worked in similar situations. More on instructional objectives can be found in my earlier Learning Solutions article, “Good Beginnings: Leveraging the Strengths and Avoiding the Weaknesses of the e-Learning Medium” (September 27, 2007).

Generating hypotheses strengthens the connections to information by activating the recall of information from memory storage (strengthening the neural pathways) and inherently involves motivation by activating a learner’s curiosity. This strategy challenges the learner to propose an outcome based upon changes in the environment that affect the traits of a concept.

Questions, cues, and advanced organizers are strategies that initiate an activity in which the learner needs to activate prior knowledge. Questions in this context are not the rhetorical version. These questions are meant to elicit inferences or require the learner to analyze information. Questions are like the starting points of a maze; they send the learner into the corridors of knowledge in search of the goal of enlightenment. The Socratic Method is a version of questioning that leads the learner to a particular train of thought or conclusion. An example of this method in an e-Learning environment would be using questions in problem-solving scenarios to guide learners to a desired conclusion.

Cues are similar to instructional objectives. Cues prepare the learner for what is to come, or provide guidance as to future learning content. Common uses of cues in e-Learning are the hints found in the lower portion of a screen along with a “What’s next” statement. Cues can also stimulate curiosity and increase motivation.

Advanced organizers are a bridging strategy that lays the groundwork for connecting what a learner knows to what is to be learned.

Implementing instructional strategies and tactics

Tactics implement an instructional strategy and consist of general rules governing an overall flow of execution, rather than a set of steps that must be performed in a specific order. For example, an effective e-Learning strategy would include tactics such as:

  • challenging the learning,
  • placing the learner within a workplace application of content,
  • providing activities to apply what is learned, and
  • providing feedback (either direct or intrinsic).

Recognizing the circumstances that favor the tactics of a strategy is the first step to success. This is called situational awareness. For example, within the events of instruction, learning and retention are related but are widely divergent. Learning is like the manufacture of building blocks, while retention is the storage yard where the bricks of knowledge are segregated by type, size, color, etc., and are ready to be used when needed for construction.

Some of the strategies above have a propensity to help the students learn or retain information. Learning involves interacting with the environment in such a way that it concludes with a change in human performance or performance potential. Retention refers to the processes where long-term memory preserves learning in such a way that the mind can locate, identify, and retrieve that learning for use in the future. We can learn something when needed for short periods, and then forget it forever. A common example is a phone number.


Table 1 Strategy applications




Using comparing, contrasting, classifying, analogies, and metaphors.



Summarizing and note taking (keyword outlines)



Reinforcing effort and giving praise



Homework and practice



Nonlinguistic representations (graphic organizers)



Cooperative learning



Setting objectives and providing feedback



Generating hypotheses



Questions, cues and advanced organizers



Table 1 is a guide to applying the strategies listed above.


Here’s how to apply three of the instructional strategies: advanced organizer, nonlinguistic representations, and generating a hypotheses. I’ll define each strategy, give guidance that will help you recognize the appropriate situational awareness for application, and describe detailed tactics of the strategy followed by an example of how to use the strategy in e-Learning.

Tactics for implementing the “advanced organizer” strategy

An advanced organizer is an introduction or transition to learning content based on a student’s prior knowledge. It is meant to be a bridge from what a student knows, to what is going to be learned. It provides an organizational framework for how the content will be presented.

Use an advanced organizer when there is a high degree of newness between what you are to teach and what the learners already know.

An advanced organizer should consist of:

  • A brief, abstract prose passage
  • A bridge, a linking of new information with something already known
  • An introduction of a new lesson, unit, or course
  • An abstract outline of new information, and a restatement of prior knowledge
  • A structure of the new information
  • Content having intellectual substance, material which is more than common knowledge

Example: The introductory paragraphs to this article are an advanced organizer. Take this challenge and see if it applies the tactics above. (Note: the last tactic is a bit subjective.)

Tactics for implementing the “nonlinguistic representations” strategy (Graphic Organizers)

Sometimes referred to as visual tools, graphic organizers are visual representations of knowledge, concepts, ideas, and the interrelations between them. Graphic organizers include words and pictures, organized around a central theme, that use lines to represent a relationship between constructs of the central theme. Some examples of graphic organizers include:

  • maps (chain, concept, hierarchy, mind, and spider),
  • tables or frames, and
  • roundhouse diagrams

This strategy complements the “spreading activation” theory of memory, supported by brain research, which tells us that a memory is stored in one or more areas of the brain. Recalling a memory is an interactive process that activates various storage areas distributed across the brain. Our memory system recalls information related to the central concept that activated its recall.

Use this strategy to enhance retention after the presentation of the learning material, or as an integral part of it. Graphic organizers can be included as an activity within the review or lesson summary.

In general, less is better. Allow learners to create as much of the organizer as possible. This means you will have to exercise some reasoned judgment on the ability of your learners to construct a graphic organizer, and possibly include a lesson on what they are and how to construct one. To implement a graphic organizer:

  • Select the best organizer based on the instructional objective
  • Determine the required level of student support, and design the organizer including:
    • The central theme
    • The constructs of the theme
    • The relationships between the constructs and the theme
    • A means to connect the constructs to the theme via the appropriate relationship
  • Invite or encourage the learner to generate the organizer
  • Provide feedback

There are a variety of ways to implement a graphic organizer, ranging from simple to complex. The simplest methods will provide the learner with the most structure. In Figure 3, a concept map provides the central theme, and the branches (relationships) relate to its constructs. The student drags and the drops the constructs from the “Topics” area to complete the map. (Note: The example includes basic definitions that will fly out on the right side, when the learner clicks the tab in the upper right corner.)



Figure 3 Concept map example. Used with permission of Fluor Hanford Co., Richland, WA

Another method of providing information to fill in an organizer, is to use a drop-down list and have the learner select information to complete the organizer. The more complex version would provide the learner with a blank page or screen and the learner would then create the entire map. The simple example in Figure 3 was created using Flash®. A complex example would use a specifically designed commercial software product like iMindMap® ( Of course, the learner would need to have the knowledge and skills necessary to use the software.

Tactics for implementing the “generating a hypothesis” strategy

A hypothesis is an explanation for a specific, or group of, phenomena. It can be asserted merely as an assumption, a guess, or as highly probable in the light of established facts.

Use this strategy within the following learning activities:

  • system analysis,
  • problem solving,
  • historical investigation,
  • interventions, and
  • decision making.

Note: Students must have the prerequisite knowledge (at least declarative knowledge) of the concepts that make up the variables affecting the outcomes involved in the experience.

The tactics for applying a hypotheses strategy are:

  • Invite or encourage the learner to generate a hypothesis; ask “What do you think will happen?”
  • Provide time to develop a hypothesis and ask questions
  • Give an opportunity to observe or experiment. That is, to manipulate the variables that affect outcomes, mentally, virtually, or actually
  • Provide an opportunity to analyze the results
  • Provide the feedback and a conclusion (desired learning outcome) with an explanation of the specifics on why the conclusion is factual 

The example in Figure 4 could apply to courses in physics, chemistry, or radiological fundamentals. Following information about the composition of matter and the structure of the atom, the learner is invited to form a hypothesis to explain what would happen to an atom’s electrical charge if a particle was added or removed. The following screen then allows the learner to experiment with a simulation that adds or removes atomic particles from a fictitious atom, and then observe the results.



Figure 4 Ion simulation example. Used with permission of Fluor Hanford Co., Richland, WA


Referring to Figure 4, basic instructions appear at the top of the screen. The screen depicts an atom enclosed in an ion chamber. The controls at the bottom are toggle switches. When clicked on the upper section (+), a particle is added to the atom in the ion chamber to show the addition. Concurrently, the “Overall Charge” meter incrementally moves from the neutral position depending on what particle is added. Conversely, clicking on the lower section of the toggle (-) will remove a particle causing the meter to move appropriately. In the case of adding or removing neutrons, the particle appears but the meter does not move. In order to accommodate a more advanced learner a tab labeled “Physicists” in the upper right will fly-out when clicked. The information is a disclaimer which states that the atom in the ion chamber does not represent an actual element in nature and is for demonstration purposes only.

The screen following the experiment asks the learner if the atom’s charge changed as the learner expected. It also provides some conclusions that may have been drawn from the experiment. For example, removing an electron from a neutral atom gives it a positive charge.


The quality of learning rarely exceeds the quality of teaching. Using the knowledge about how our brains learn, we can choose from a variety of brain- compatible strategies to design effective e-Learning. The various brain-compatible strategies are neither equally effective nor appropriate in all learning situations. Keep in mind that no one strategy exists that is best for all students all the time. Students are more likely to retain and achieve more whenever they are actively engaged in the learning. Try some of these strategies in your next design project, and use the references to learn more about them. Knowing about a strategy is the first step. Knowing the basis of why they work is the key to knowing when to use one.


Hyerle, David. (1996) Visual Tools for Construction Knowledge. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Marzano, Robert, J., Pickering, Debra J., and Pollack, Jane E. (2001) Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development; first edition.

Sousa, David A. (2006). How the Brain Learns. Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, California. Corwin Press.

West, C. K, Farmer, J. A. & Wolff, P.M. (1991). Instructional design implications from cognitive science. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice?Hall.

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