As adult learners now make up the majority of U.S. students, it is more important than ever for educators who administer and teach in post-traditional programs to understand how the adult brain learns. This article examines the science of how the adult brain learns and offers suggestions for faculty in post-traditional programs to capitalize on this knowledge and maximize the effectiveness of their teaching. Both theoretical underpinnings and practical tips for brain-based teaching are offered
When I speak on this topic, as I frequently do, I almost always begin by asking my audience members, “How many of you in here genuinely care that your students learn?” I typically get a gentle wave of laughter and a sea of raised hands in response. Of course, we care that our students learn; that’s why we do what we do! But how do we know learning is actually taking place? Many instructors simply do what they have done for years, or they do what feels right, or they choose an activity that they read about or saw somewhere. But if we genuinely care that our students learn, then it behooves us to make informed choices about our instructional strategies so we can rest assured learning is taking place.
I will elucidate on some of what we know about how the adult brain learns, through examination of one of the most intriguing concepts from the field of neuroandragogy, an emerging field born from the intersection of neuroscience and andragogy, a term popularized by Malcolm Knowles, the influential theorist of adult education whose book The Modern Practice of Adult Education still serves as a seminal text for educators. I will provide an illustrative example of the application of this knowledge to teaching practice. The science and the tips offered in this piece are applicable to both on-campus and online learning.
Most teachers of adult learners are likely familiar with Knowles’s theory of andragogy by now. For those who aren’t, the theory can be summarized in 5 simple words: adults learn differently than children. That is why Knowles employs the term andragogy for adults, as opposed to the term pedagogy, which applies to the learning of children. The Greek root “andra” means “man,” or for Knowles’s purpose, “adult,” while the root “agogos” means “leading of.” Andragogy, then, has to do with the leading or education of adults. This demarcation is present even between adults and young adults. Most cognitive scientists mark the “adult brain” as beginning at or around age 23—past the age of the traditional college student. Thus, if you teach adults in the same manner you do, have, or would teach traditional-age students, it is highly likely that learning is not, in fact, taking place.
More specifically, Knowles’s andragogical theory is comprised of six principles:
- Adults are self-directed learners
- Adults accumulate experience that becomes an increasingly rich resource for learning
- Readiness to learn is related to social roles
- Adults want immediate application of knowledge (problem-centered orientation)
- Adults tend to be internally motivated
- Adults need to know the reason or learning something
Although all six of these principles are important, the second principle of prior experience is the one around which this article centers. The neuroandragogical concepts explained here support and illustrate Knowles’s assumption that a learner’s ever-growing reservoir of experience is a rich resource for learning.
Neuroandragogy is a relatively new field that examines the intersection of neuroscience—how the brain works—and andragogy—the field of adult learning. According to Clive Wilson, author of No One is Too Old to Learn, “neuroandragogy investigates the rigorous research of scholars in brain studies, the scientific investigation of adult learning, and the evaluation of adult intelligence. Neuroandragogy is both the anatomical and physiological study of the adult brain and the cognitive functions of the systems of the brain that participate in intelligence, memory, recall, and learning” (2006, 3). Neuroandragogy is important to anyone who teaches adults because it focuses in particular on the function of and impact to the adult brain during the process of learning.
With a perfunctory understanding of andragogy and neuroandragogy, let us now examine the science of how the brain actually learns. I will then offer tips for maximizing this knowledge toward better teacher practice.
How the Brain Learns
The brain is comprised of 100 billion neurons, or brain cells. These cells contain nuclei, which make enzymes, proteins, and neurotransmitters—all of which are critical for the nerve cells in the brain to communicate with one another. Neurons have a single axon, which is a long tube that sends electrical impulses—called action potentials—to other cells. And neurons also have dendrites, which are more complicated structures (imagine little hands), which receive electrical impulses from the axon terminals of other neurons. A synapse is the specialized site at which that communication happens. All of these things together form what’s called a neuronal network (Zull, 2002).
The most fascinating thing about the formation of a neuronal network is that each one represents a physical change in the brain. Each time we learn something new—not each time we encounter something new, but rather each time learning actually takes place through a synaptic connection—a new tiny “branch” forms in our brain. But this physical transformation can only take place by connecting new stimuli (information) to an existing neuron—hence the importance of connecting to prior experience in our learners. The process of learning is literally the physical act of growing our existing neuronal networks.
One can use myriad analogies to describe the brain, but for now, let’s imagine the brain as a comprised of millions of tiny little storage cubbies—like the kind you used to store your mittens and toothbrush in in kindergarten. Each time we attend to a new stimulus, our brain processes the signal coming from that stimulus by comparing it immediately to the contents of those millions of cubbies to ask—as Taylor and Marienau put it: “How is this experience like what I already know?” (2016, p. 55). When the brain finds a connection to something we already know—something that exists in one of our storage cubbies—the brain processes that stimuli with a higher, stronger signal, which increases the likelihood that those fingerlike dendrites grab onto that stimulus and hold it. When our brain finds little connection between the stimulus and what we already know, the signal weakens, and little or no connection is made—in other words, no learning takes place.
Thus, to understand how the brain learns is to understand that teachers, trainers, and facilitators simply must find some way to connect new information to something the learner already knows. Without that connection, learning is simply not taking place.
All of the information about the brain I’ve shared up to now is related to the notion that the adult brain has plasticity, which means that as long as it is stimulated, it is possible to continue to grow—to build new connections; in fact, Feyler (as cited in Wilson, 2006) specifically defines plasticity as the capacity for the brain to grow. But, as Taylor and Marienau (2016) point out, the role of plasticity vis-à-vis prior experience is more important that just growth; plasticity’s critical role is in allowing the brain to adapt and change over time based on learning that comes from new experiences. Plasticity means that the connections made in the brain are “adapted, elaborated, and organized as new experiences strengthen or weaken existing synapses” (Taylor & Marienau, 2016, p. 28). In other words, there is a direct relationship between plasticity and prior experience. In fact, Ebner (1996) suggests that learning is defined as the direct result of experience combined with the storing of new information, and Turkington (as cited in Wilson, 2006) suggests that enriched environments have a critical effect on plasticity.
The most impactful way to leverage this relationship between prior experience and plasticity is to place the learner in an enriched environment—that is, one with multiple types of stimuli. Again, there is science behind these assertions. Turkish researchers Ozel et al. (2008) note that each stimulant coming from an environment increases the number of dendrites and, thus, the likelihood of a synaptic connection between the axon and dendrite. In other words, creating enriched environments increases the biochemical likelihood of the creation of a new neuronal network. Numerous research studies have found that mice placed or living in enriched environments (e.g., environments with water mazes, platforms, tunnels, multiple toys, wheels, etc.) saw positive impacts on various cognitive functions—e.g., increased spatial acquisition and retention, increased behavioral flexibility, increased long-term memory, and fewer errors on learning tests (Frick et al., 2003; Garthe, Roeder & Kempermann, 2016; Yuan et al., 2012). Wilson (2011) reports that similar results are now being found in adults age 50-70, though testing on adults is still quite nascent.
Let’s move from the science of enriched environments to a metaphor to help drive this concept home. Robert Sylwester was a Professor of Education at the University of Oregon who focused on getting educators to easily understand the brain. He suggested that our brains are like a jazz quartet. If you’re familiar with jazz, you know that the sound is constructed in a way that is random, miscellaneous—some might even call it discordant. But these discordant sounds come together to produce a congruent sound. Similarly, the brain needs enriched environments to learn because it processes things in a multi-modal fashion. You can think of like a jazz quartet—lots of layers come together to produce one congruent sound. Likewise, when learning, our brain produces a more congruent image when presented with stimuli from many different avenues. Things like pictures, charts, sounds, smells, vivid images, stories, colors, music, and poetry are all examples of ways multi-modal stimuli that help create enriched environments. Creating an enriched environment also increases the likelihood that you will connect with a higher percentage of your learners’ prior experiences. If I tell a story that doesn’t necessarily connect with a learner, but then I also show an image that does, then I’ve made a connection where I may not have with just the story!
To create an enriched environment in our classrooms (whether online or on campus), instructors should avoid what are called low-frequency activities, such as lectures, and utilize high-frequency activities—in other words those that utilize multiple modalities to increase the likelihood of strong synaptic connections. Basically, lots of stimuli and lots of engagement.
For example, I teach a graduate course called Adult Learning Strategies and Theories. This class is one in which I teach learners who want to become teachers or trainers how to be good teachers and trainers. One of the lessons in this course is the importance of understanding theory. I want my students to truly understand what theory offers us as teachers and trainers, and—even more importantly—how application of particular theories impacts the strategic and tactical choices we make in learning situations.
This is not a concept I can simply provide a textbook definition for—not if I really want learning to take place. I have to engage my students in truly learning—in creating new neuronal networks—I have to engage my students in multiple modes of interacting with this concept. I must create an enriched environment.
Therefore, when I teach this concept online, I engage in all of the following to teach this concept:
- The students, of course, have reading.
- I then ask students to watch a brief (5 to 7-minute lecture) in which I explain what theory is and how it serves as a lens through which they view the world, which, in turn, impacts decisions they make.
- In my video, I put a pair of glasses on and I give this example:
Let’s say I have a theory that animals deserve kindness and that anyone who does not treat animals with kindness is a bad person. This pair of glasses represents that theory. Thus, it literally represents how I see the world through that that lens. When I view the world through this lens, it impacts the choices I make. Because I think animals deserve kindness, I choose to be “mom” to several animals and treat them kindly. I choose to help animals in need by donating my time and money to animal organizations. Because my theory is that people who do not treat animals with kindness are bad people, that, too, impacts choices: I am more likely to choose to be friends with people who think like me (I don’t hang around a lot of hunters). I lobby for harsher penalties for those who abuse animals. My theory about animal kindness impacts dozens of choices I make within my life in a given week.The same is true of any theory. If I view the world through an andragogical lens (I now put on a different pair of glasses), I believe adults learn differently than children, and I believe that the experiences they bring to the table are critical to their learning. Thus, if I truly believe this theory, that must impact the strategy and tactics I choose as an instructor, yes?
- Next, to add even more stimuli—i.e., enrichment—I ask my students to choose the theory that resonates with them the most, the one that likely represents their most common “lens,” and to generate any type of analogy (metaphor, simile, story, parable, cliché, idiom) to explain or describe that theory. They must record their response and post a video on the class discussion board. I ask them to share the analogy they’ve crafted, but NOT to explain how or why that analogy illustrates their chosen theory. That work is done by their peers when they react and respond to the analogy—the peers must explain the link they see between the analogy and the theory. For example, I recall one student who immediately likened Constructivism to the book “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.” She merely shared this observation with her peer, who then had to explain the link he saw between the two.
I create many and varied stimuli with these activities. Moreover, not only have I crafted an enriched online environment, I have increased the opportunities for the new information (the theory or theories) to connect to my learners’ prior experiences. My students have no choice but to tap into their prior experience to not only link a (new) theory to an (existing) analogy they already knew, but also to explain the connection they are seeing in their peers’ analogies.
As another example, let’s say I was teaching my students about constructivism—the theory that the process of learning takes place in the act of experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. If I wanted to create an enriched environment, I might ask my students to choose one of their strongest personal mottos or beliefs (e.g., mine would be “better safe than sorry”) and to reflect on what experiences in their lives led to the creation of that motto or belief. Then I would ask my students to construct a mind map, or perhaps a collage, of the various experiences, thoughts, and concepts that have led to the building of that belief. I might then ask my students to use their phones or webcams to record a “virtual tour” of their mind maps or collages. If I wanted to add even more enrichment, I might ask my students to listen to a podcast from Hidden Brain (the NPR radio show) about meaning making, or to find another podcast or video of their choosing. Or I could ask them to have an online discussion with a partner about how they anticipate this motto or belief will play out as they move farther into their professions.
The beauty of creating enriched environments is that using multiple stimuli increases the biochemical likelihood of connecting to a learner’s prior experience. Therefore, my students are more likely to connect to—and thus remember and learn—this information because I have used multiple modalities to share it.
But Isn’t This Just Multiple Intelligences?
I get this question a lot: isn’t the concept of enriched environments the same thing as Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences? There is a great deal of overlap, to be sure, but they are not the same thing. Gardner’s theory, which was groundbreaking at the time, was indeed based on research, but not specifically research about how the brain learns; rather, it was based, more broadly, on how the brain works or performs, or doesn’t (Gardner, 1999, pgs. 33-46). And though the practice of addressing multiple intelligences and creating enriched environments may certainly (but not necessarily) look similar in practice, cognitively speaking, they are fundamentally different. The fact that Learner A is intelligent in a different way from Learner B is a fundamentally different assertion than the fact that both learners’ brains produce a more congruent image when they are presented with multiple stimuli because both of their brains (assuming healthy, normal functioning) process stimuli in a multi-model fashion (again, like a jazz quartet).
Another way to illustrate the distinction between multiple intelligences and enriched environments is to imagine you are teaching only one student rather than a group of students. If you teach only one student and wish to address multiple intelligences, you would assess which intelligence that learner possesses most strongly and address that intelligence in order to teach her or him. That does not necessarily mean you would be creating an enriched environment—you may need only one kind of stimuli to address said intelligence. However, if you wish to ensure learning is taking place, you would be sure to create an enriched environment by utilizing multiple stimuli to teach that student (and if you want to ensure those stimuli address that learner’s particular intelligence, all the better). But the reverse is not necessarily true: that is, regardless of how many intelligences a teacher addresses, if she or he does not connect the new information to something the learner already knows, no learning can take place. And creating an enriched environment makes it more likely this will happen.
This article has shared the science behind the importance of creating enriched environments when teaching and provided an example to help illustrate how you, too, can engage in the best possible practices to ensure learning is taking place in your classrooms whether online or on campus.
The field of neuroandragogy demonstrates that there is empirical evidence for the use of enriched environments, and that without them, your students may not be actually learning. To meet the needs of today’s adult learner, we must utilize the science of how the brain learns to inform our instructional strategies if we truly care that our students learn.
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Frick, K., Stearns, N., Pan, J., & Berger-Sweeney, J. (2003). Effects of environmental enrichment on spatial memory and neurochemistry in middle-aged mice. Learning and Memory, 10(3), 187-198.
Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.
Garthe, A., Roeder, I., & Kempermann, G. (2016). Mice in an enriched environment learn more flexibly because of adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Hippocampus, 26(2) 261-171.
Knowles, M. (1988). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Cambridge.
Ozel, A., Byindir, N., Ozel, E., & Ciftciohlu, I. (2008). “Brain-based Learning and student-centrism on curriculum.” Ekev Academic Review, 12(35), 343-350.
Taylor, K. & Marienau, C. (2016). Facilitating learning with the adult brain in mind. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Turkington (1996). The brain encyclopedia. Checkmark Books.
Wilson, C. (2011). Neuroandragogy: Making the case for a link with andragogy and brain-based learning. Paper presented at the meeting of the Midwest Research-to-Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing, Community, and Extension Education, Lindenwood University, St. Charles, MO.
Wilson, C. (2006). No one is too old to learn (Neuroandragogy: A theoretical perspective on adult brain functions and adult learning). Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.
Yuan, Z., Wang, M., Yan, B., Gu, P., Jiang, X., Yang, X. & Cui, D. (2012). An enriched environment improves cognitive performance in mice from the senescence-accelerated prone mouse 8 strain: Role of upregulated neurotrophic factor expression in the hippocampus. Neural Regeneration Research, 7(23), 1797-1804.
Zull, J. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Allison Friederichs, Ph.D., is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and assistant teaching professor at University College of the University of Denver. Allison engages in research and public speaking in academic and corporate sectors in the area of how the adult brain learns, and the implications of that knowledge on teaching, training, and curriculum development. She serves on UPCEA’s Federal Policy Committee.