4 Ways Learning Science Can Maximize How People Learn

Jessica Ashraf

Learning Scientist at Udemy

April 28, 2017

Exciting new research in both neuroscience and cognitive science reveals how people’s brains actually learn—enabling L&D professionals to apply the instructional methods that work best. As Udemy’s Learning Scientist, my job is to stay up to date with the latest research and make decisions on how learning science strategies can be incorporated into both our course design and our product development.

Our goal at Udemy is to enhance student engagement and learning outcomes. Here are 4 ways we incorporate learning science into our course design to enhance the overall learning experience and maximize learning.

1. Reduce cognitive load

Research has shown that the brain has only a finite amount of space. “Cognitive load” refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the brain and memory. The goal in creating an ideal online learning environment is to reduce cognitive load or the amount of brainpower you use on other things aside from learning. So for example, if you have to navigate a learning platform that’s difficult to use (think of the traditional corporate Learning Management System), you use up key brainpower, leaving fewer brain cells for actual learning to take place.

At Udemy, based on well-known cognitive load research from Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno at the University of California, Santa Barbara, we’ve designed our video-based learning platform to limit distractions. Our platform is designed to be simple and easy to use so the brain can learn. We’ve built in features that limit cognitive load to help the learner focus. If a person is watching a course, but then takes another action like posts a question to the instructor, the video will automatically pause. This reduces “multi-tasking” and ensures that learning takes place. This is just one of the many ways we’ve designed our product to maximize learning.

2. Ensure learning is applied with active practice

Groundbreaking research in neuroscience allows us to take a peek at learning and behavior in an entirely new way. This new field combines physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology to understand how neurons in the brain actually work.

Neuroscience research confirms that learning starts when the brain processes the information and organizes them into neural pathways. But these neural pathways of understanding need to be reinforced to enhance memory and learning. This means learning can’t be passive. Students must actively practice what they learn to ensure that new neural pathways become permanent.

What are some of the ways we ensure active learning at Udemy? We encourage instructors to teach in bite-sized chunks and pause for frequent practice assignments. That’s why we’ve have embedded features within our product for instructors to offer practice opportunities through exercises, quizzes, and other assignment tools.

For example, we built a coding practice tool that serves over 10 programming languages for our development courses. This tool enables students to watch a lecture and then engage in practice coding exercises to solidify what they learned. We also recommend instructors to teach their course as if it were a project, so the student has to actually create something concrete from what they learned (i.e. an online game or app) at the end of the course.

Maximize how people learn with learning science
Example of a Course Designed with Hands-on Activities

3. Keep learners motivated with low barriers and high rewards

How do you keep people motivated to learn? Learning science strategies focus on making sure the barriers to learn are low, while maximizing the rewards gained from learning.

The ARCS model of motivational design has four elements as it relates to the learner—Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction. The basic idea is you want to develop a course that grabs the student’s attention, is relevant to their needs, and gives them both confidence and satisfaction.

Based on this model, here are some of the ways our Udemy instructors sustain student motivation and their ability to learn in a self-directed online environment:

  • The course is broken down into digestible steps

  • Section headings enable students to easily navigate to information most relevant to them

  • Cognitive load is reduced by avoiding tangents and unnecessary information during lectures

  • Novelty or curiosity is used to gain attention

  • Milestones are built in throughout the course so students feel a sense of progress and confidence

  • Humor is infused in the course material. Neuroscience research shows that humor activates the brain’s dopamine reward system—which is important for motivation as well as retention of new knowledge.

4. Overcome expert blind spots

When experts become teachers, they are faced with what learning scientists call “expert blind spots.” They have built a mental model in their brain on a topic or skill, but have forgotten how they got there. Not every subject matter expert is naturally a good teacher.

At Udemy, we help our expert instructors overcome “expert blind spots” so they can become effective teachers. The challenge for experts is they don’t know what to leave out. That’s why we don’t allow anyone to upload a course on our platform. We help them follow instructional design best practices so they upload a well-designed course.

For example, before our instructors begin assembling their curriculum, we ask them to think about the goals of the course and focus each section on the problems learners are trying to solve. Rather than including everything they know, instructors must narrow their content to maintain focus and stay on point.

Another instructional design strategy includes showing instructors “how to scaffold” their course—a technique where beginner students get more support but additional help is reduced as the learner gains expertise.

Content quality decided and designed by real people

Finally, at Udemy, we have a quality control process in place to ensure our courses embody instructional design best practices based on the latest learning science research. At the same time, we also allow the individuality and creativity of each instructor to shine through so that each course is uniquely engaging. At the end of the day, Udemy’s consumer-driven marketplace is a strong decider of quality and arguably a better gauge of quality—more people decide whether a course is good or bad than small in-house course creation teams. With 15+ million actual people saying which course they love (or hate), the best courses always rise to the top.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report: The Skills of the Future thumbnail


Discover the latest trending tech & soft skills, top 10 skills by industry & role, and how organizations are preparing their workforce for the future.

More from L&D Best Practices Topic

L&D Best Practices

The Top 8 Learning & Development Priorities for 2020

The beginning of the new year and decade has many people thinking about their goals and plans for the future....

L&D Best Practices

Highlights from the Udemy 2019 Workplace Boundaries Report

Office culture is always evolving, but with the influx of younger workers, the increased ability to work remotely, and the...

L&D Best Practices

People Innovators Summit Europe 2019: Reimagining the Future of Learning

As organisations and their employees adapt to the rapidly-evolving landscape, over a hundred People, HR, learning & development (L&D), and...