John Medina's 'Brain Rules' and how they can help us create better learning

| By David Smith

John Medina's 'Brain Trends'

There are many books I have read over the years that have had a profound effect on me; none more so than John Medina’s “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at Work, Home and School”

A colleague of mine, Nanette Miner, introduced me to this great work around 5 years ago and I will always be grateful to her for that introduction!

Medina is a molecular biologist that knows a thing or three about how the brain works.  Research (both his and others) has begun to lead us to a better understanding of how our learners think and subsequently, how that should influence the way we approach design and delivery in order to achieve successful learning outcomes.

Let’s look at five of these brain rules and what they means for us as learning professionals.

Rule #2 – Survival – plan introductions to reduce inhibitions among learners

Man has evolved over the years from our cave dwelling days, through to the modern day and we have become the most dominant species on the planet because we have come together in tribes, created relationships and built communities.

We are a very social animal and in learning we need to know who else is in the learning event with us.

Make sure you take the time to get learners introducing themselves, getting to know one another better – it will lead to learners becoming more comfortable not only with the facilitator but with one another, which leads to a more collaborative experience where learners learn with you not just from you.

Rule #4 – Attention – create stimuli that captures and maintains attention

Medina’s rule number 4 should come as no surprise to us – we do not pay attention to boring things.

Our attention spans have been getting shorter year after year as we fight the hundreds of stimuli that crave our attention every minute of every day.

Learning has been evolving and as learners we no longer are content with a jam-packed two day workshop, we want learning shorter, sharper and more convenient than ever before.

From his research Medina tells us that our attention wanes after just 10 minutes – bad news for those of you still providing 15 minutes lectures!

Ensure that you are “paying attention” to this 10 minute rule – change up the stimuli for your learners before you reach the 10 minutes mark and start to lose them.

Rule #8 – Stress – limit the stress we put upon our learners

As human beings we have a ‘fight or flight’ mechanism built into each and every one of us – a result of having had to evade being eaten by sabre toothed tigers way back in time.

In a learning context, stress can be seen as good and bad, but regardless, stress is something we should be managing.

Asking learners to step up and do a role-play before they are ready or able to do can be very stressful and not conducive to the learner achieving a great outcome.

Some of you may argue against that saying that a healthy level of stress is good to replicate the “real world” we live in, but ask yourself do YOU enjoy role-plays?

This is not to say that we should completely remove the use of role plays but rather that we need to manage the environment we create to a greater extent so that our learner ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is not tested so much.

Rule #10 – Vision – appeal to the senses, images work best

Vision is the strongest of all of our senses and trumps every other!

Think about how an image can bring back so many memories…you remember so much about the person through seeing their face.

Vision is one of the strongest senses we have and we need to harness that as we create visuals for our learning.

Medina calls for less text, more pictures on our presentations (take a look at your slides - are they overly text heavy?) He goes on to suggest that use of animation particularly appeals to our sense of vision.

Medina’s research shows us that if we provide the learning through speech alone (oral delivery) then the chances are only 10% will be retained; if we use visual only that goes up to 35%, but when we combine both (oral and visual) we get a 6x better result (65%).

However, it’s not simply a matter of adding visuals to our slides, its adding them into participant guides, job aids and other collateral – we should take every opportunity to increase learning retention.

Two other books that had a huge impact on me tackle the subject of good slide design; Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte – I guarantee they will change the way you craft you slides!

Rule #12 – Exploration – allow learners to explore for themselves

We humans managed to put a man on the moon, circumnavigate the globe, sail vast oceans and dive great depths all in the pursuit of exploration. We are powerful and natural explorers.

Medina states “We must do a better job of encouraging lifelong curiosity.” This natural ability and desire to explore is something we need to build into our learning events.

The brain loves to learn by exploring the world around us, by trial and error, and by acting out the scenarios of real life (using role plays and case studies are great ways of tapping into our need for exploration)


There are many more elements Medina covers that can help us create far more effective learning – but this is a good start!

As educators we owe it to our learners (and their organizations) to craft and deliver learning that is truly effective. We can achieve that by keeping Medina’s ‘Brain Rules’ as a constant companion on our or e-readers.


About the Author: David Smith

David is Global Director of Virtual Learning Solutions at TMA World, he is passionate about virtual working whether communicating, meeting, presenting or training virtually. A regular speaker at international training conferences and Citrix webinars. 

In his spare time he enjoys many sports (unfortunately most as a spectator), has a family that keeps him young, loves Spanish Tapas and great red wines. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter

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