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How Can Neuroscience Inform Online Adult Education?

Research related to how the brain functions should inform pedagogical and instructional advancements across the higher education space.


The past two decades have marked great strides in neuroscience research. Insights from this research have informed the fields of child development and K-12 education. More recently, research specific to the adult brain has informed the fields of continuing and adult education, including online adult education.

Research & Resulting Learning Principles

Stevens and Goldberg (2001) report that our brains are not equally good at everything; each brain is unique. Brains continue to update and develop throughout life. They are designed to notice differences and crave novelty to drive ongoing learning.

Zull (2011, 2002) adds these findings from brain research: Information is stored and retrieved through complex neural connections. The brain is meaning-driven, attempting to match new information with prior understanding. Neural connections continue to develop and change throughout life, creating networks of understanding. Learning develops with practice and experience. Learning how to learn (metacognition) develops with opportunities to reflect on how new information integrates with our work and/or lives.

Like everything physiological, our brains have limitations. Mayer & Moreno (2003) point out learning limitations based on cognitive overload. Learning requires substantial cognitive processing using all sensory channels available. The brain has limited processing capacity available at any moment, thus it may become overloaded and miss part of the information, leading to incomplete or incorrect learning.

Learning itself involves the whole body, not just the brain. Nutrition, exercise, and sleep all impact learning. Substances such as medication can positively impact learning; whereas, alcohol, and illicit drugs can negatively impact learning. According to Lackey, untreated emotional states such as anxiety and depression can also impair learning. Learning activities need to be challenging but not overwhelming.

Adults have unique needs as learners. Meyer (2003) raises concerns about the brain’s adaptation to the fantasy of togetherness created by technology in online education. While the brain can easily process information provided at a distance, special measures are required to create emotional connections. Meyer suggests using language to create and maintain interpersonal relations, and to create the connection and support that come from learning together.

Wlodkowski (2008) identified several adult learner needs that drive motivation to learn. Adults need to feel included and respected. Adult learners come into the learning environment with experiences, values, and knowledge that need to be acknowledged and included in their learning experiences. Also, adult learners need to perceive new learning as contributing value to their real world.

Applying Research & Resulting Principles

How do we apply neuroscience research and derived principles to adult online education? Zull (2011) suggests the following strategies to maximize learning (cognition) as well as learning how to learn (metacognition): (1) create an environment for discovery, (2) include modeling by experts, (3) provide challenges that require creative actions, (4) apply all available senses to learning, (5) promote joy from learning, (6) use practice and experimentation to extend memory for future problem-solving, (7) allow individualized paths to learning, and (8) promote ongoing development of learning skills, or metacognition.

In terms of adult online education, these translate into the following pedagogical strategies:

  • Make use of the inquiry model, supporting learners in conducting their own research and synthesizing their discoveries.
  • Include video and/or audio clips from a variety of experts addressing relevant issues. Or include activities in which learners conduct interviews with experts and share insights learned.
  • Present learners with complex problems via simulations, case studies, role playing, or game-based challenges.
  • Invite learners to write, audio record, or video record their responses to assigned activities.
  • Allow learners to select topics of interest within the scope of the course and to complete assignments based on actual projects related to work or life.
  • Reduce anxiety and stress by including some flexibility in the coursework deadlines.
  • Include graphics, video, or animation to illustrate processes or sequences of events.
  • Provide visuals displaying examples and non-examples of concepts to be learned.
  • Ask questions that require careful observation.
  • Provide learners with opportunities to reflect on their learning and explain how it integrates with their work and/or lives.
  • Offer learners access to online communities of practice to extend learning opportunities beyond the course.

Clemons (2005) suggests providing adult learners with the following to maximize learning: (1) steady encouragement, (2) engagement as active participants in learning, (3) occasional elements of surprise or novelty to maintain attention, (4) appropriate humor to relieve anxiety, and (5) activities that encourage interactions.

According to McGuckin & Ladhani (2010), online education should reinforce adults’ experiences as well as challenge them to extend learning. Collaborative learning activities providing stimulating discussions and/or complex problem-solving can provide such challenges as well as promote a personal and connected learning environment. In addition, adult learners solidify their knowledge by teaching others; involve learners in group and team projects and allow them to contribute to feedback via peer and self-evaluations.

Weimer (2012) encourages three types of activities to develop metacognition and prepare independent, self-directed learners: (1) time and environment management to prepare for learning; (2) reflection and mental questions to monitor self-learning; and (3) use of mental questions or provided rubrics for self-evaluation of new knowledge and skills.


James Watson, Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, is quoted by Clemons (2005) as stating, “The brain boggles the mind.” Certainly, the brain is complex and neuroscience research is just beginning to explain how it works. However, we can and should apply the adult learning principles and pedagogies derived from the research explored above. This article provides a recent subset of resources offering recommendations for adult online education. Hopefully, it has piqued your interest enough to apply suggested pedagogies and to pursue further study.

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Aguilar, D., Banda, J., & Perez, M. (2012). Justification for Certification Program for Teaching Online. Retrived from:

Clemons, S. A. (2005). Brain-Based Learning: Possible Implications for Online Instruction. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(9). Retrieved from:

Lackey, J. A. 12 Design Principles Based on Brain-Based Learning Research. Retrieved from: Learn98.htm

McGuckin, D. & Ladhani, M. (2010). The Brains Behind Brain-Based Research. College Quarterly, 13(3). Retrieved from:

Meyer, K. A. (2003). The Implications of Brain Research for Distance Education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 6(3). Retrieved from:

Van Barneveld, A. (2012). Research for Practitioners: Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load. Learning Solutions Magazine, October 24th. Retrieved from:

Weimer, M. (2012). Teaching Metacognition to Improve Student Learning. Faculty Focus, October 31st. Retrieved from:

Zull, J. E. (2011). From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education. Stylus Publishing. Sterling, VA.

Zull, J. E. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Stylus Publishing. Sterling, VA.

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