Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Brain - Yesterday and Today

Theory Basis: Learning Theory

I recently attended ASTDs Brain-Based Learning Virtual Summit and had an opportunity to review a computer-based course about the Global Harmonization Standard initiative being implemented in the realm of hazard communications.  In this blog, like a good Tom Clancy novel, I intent to connect the two experiences to provide you with a new filter for thinking about designing instruction and  advise about the “rational” step in an instructional process.

Way Back When - Neural Science

Once upon a time the survival of the human race depended on how quickly one could recognize danger and react to it.  Hence, nature favored a brain that would process emotions fast and first.  It is just such a brain that we inherit today.

The Quick Mind Survived!
The way our brain works has important implications for us today and affects how we learn.  Basically anytime you or I perceive a threat the logical (thinking) part of the brain’s function decreases proportionally.  The gateway of information into the brain is the amygdala; the memory manager of the brain the hippocampus. Hence retention!   The amygdala is like a 3-way control valve (see graphic below).  In general, the more a threat is perceived the more the brain’s functions go away from logic and memory and toward survival.  Conversely, the lower the perceived threat potential the more the brain can function toward learning and retention.

The Brain is Constantly Assessing the Environment for Threats
New Model

Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute developed a model based on research centered on the activity of the brain; specifically the amygdala and various environmental conditions.  There’s a good chance Dr. Rock couldn’t find any saber-toothed tigers but he did created situations that relate to being in a learning environment.  He found five factors that will influence whether we are mentally moving toward or away from being able to learn and retain information.  These factors make up the SCRAF model.  SCARF stands for: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

Referring to the diagram below, as we process information from the environment we are unconsciously filtering it for a level of threat or reward.  A condition mildly leaning in the direction of “Toward” is the best for learning.
The NeuroLeadership SCARF Model


I like to do a bit of reality check when I come across a new model by looking for consistency with currently accepted applications and practices.  In the case of the SCARF model, it seems to be in alignment.  For example, the application of “Adult Learning Theory” (Knowles) and its #1 Premise; Adults have a need to know why they should learn something matches up well with the “Certainty” factor of the model.

As we approach the development phase of a design process, we can use the SCRAF model to evaluate our strategy or method by asking, “Will the result of implementing this strategy be perceived by the learner as a threat or a reward, and to what degree?  The answer should influence the “how” we implement.

Example: Event of Instruction – Introduction

Strategy: Sharing Learning Objectives

The value of sharing the learning goal or objectives can’t be emphasized enough (See my Blog, April 2012, Learning Objectives – The Rosetta Stone of ISD).  We can now add another reason for why.  Applying the SCARF model, by providing the students with “Certainty” in what the future holds and  increasing “Status” with the reward of success will shift the SCARF continuum it the “Toward” direction  favoring learning.

But how to share objectives seems to be a challenge.  And, there is lots of advice:

“Only rarely will designers express the objectives to the learners in the same form that were used when designing instruction.” (Smith & Ragan)

“A list of thirty or forty technically worded objectives would be likely to shatter the learner’s confidence. A list of three of four global objectives written in the learners’ language would tend to build confidence. (Dick & Carey)

“Of course, if objectives are to be communicated effectively, they must be put into words (or pictures if appropriate) that the student can readily understand.” (Gagne’, Briggs & Wager)

“Also, when using the cognitive approach, it is important to state the objective in terms the learner will understand, rather than a formally stated objective.” (Foshay, Silber, & Stelnicki)

“Lists of objectives are not motivating… listing them at the beginning of each module of instruction isn’t a very effective thing to do.” (Michael Allen)

“The more concrete and verifiable what you want the learners to be able to do and say, the more easily you can identify their successes or short comings”. (Stolovitch & Keeps)

“Trainees must clearly understand them (objectives), or they are of limited use” (DOE Handbook-1078-94)

“Use sticky objectives. A “sticky objective” simply shifts the timeframe of the performance from at the conclusion of training to on the job.” (Barbra Carnes)

“Just dumping in objectives to satisfy auditors is an affront to the profession!” (Cj Stape)

Applying SCARF Model

Please take a moment and watch the video capture of an e-Learning course introducing a lesson within a course and sharing an objective. (Please give it a few seconds to load and maybe even watch it twice.)

Now let’s determine the degree the objective will increase certainty or create uncertainty.

·        Is it clear as to when success will be achieved?
·        Is there enough detail to remove uncertainty?
·        Is there any jargon or concepts unknown to the learner?
·        Does it seem achievable to the uninitiated?
·        Imagine a test question develop to measure this objective. Is it evident what the answer would be?
·        Ask someone unfamiliar with the subject and ask them if they would be certain of what is expected?
My Evaluation & Opportunities for Improvement

In my opinion, this objective is ambiguous. Ambiguity activates brain regions that process “threat” because it leaves the learner uncertain; depresses learning.

Besides the blatant disregard for the “Coherence Principle” or a feeble attempt to wake up the student, the objective lacks any details on the quality and content of the discussion.  When I read it I asked myself, “what specific properties, how many, at what level of expertise will the discussion be held, how much do I really need to know?

I would question if the potential audience is familiar with the term “pictogram”. I also had the advantage of seeing the next two screens which defined what a pictogram is.  One could deduce that if the term needs defined the perspective audience doesn’t know what it means and the term shouldn’t be used until after defined.  So I would say contains jargon.

My version:

Working with the given objective (because I really question its validity as really supporting a task from a job analysis; (kinda fails the real world practice test) my version would be:

In this lesson the details about the new signs (pictograms) will be explained. When finished, you’ll be able to discuss the topic of pictograms by describing the qualities of the border, symbols and background that are used to design one.  You’ll be able to do this as easily as you can identify a stop sign when driving.

Example of a Pictogram
Your Turn

Evaluate my objective for the qualities of certainty and share your evaluation in a comment.

Best regards,



Allen Michael, W. (2003) Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning – Building interactive, fun, and effective learning programs for any company.  John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey.

Carnes Barbara. (2012) Making Learning Stick: Techniques for easy and effective transfer of technology-supported training. American Society for Training & Development. ASTD Press.  Alexandria, VA.

Dick, W., & Carey, L. (1996). The systematic design of instruction (4th Ed.).  New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Department of Energy Handbook 1078-94, A systematic approach to training. (1994).  Page 17.  U.S. Department of Commerce, Technology administration, National Technical Information Services.  Springfield VA.

Gagne, R., Briggs, L., Wager, W. (1992).  Principles of instructional design (4th Ed.).  Orlando, FL: HBJ.

Knowles, M (1996). Adult Learning. In Robert L Cragf (Ed), The ASTD Training and Development Handbook (pp. 253-264). NY: McGraw-Hill

Rock David (2009). Your Brain at Work - Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. Harper-Collins. New York, New York.  NeuroLeader Institute – Home Page

Smith, P. L. & Ragan, T. J. (1993) Instructional Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Prentice-Hall.

Stolovittch, H. D. and Keeps, E. J. (2002). Telling Ain’t Training. Alexandria, VA. ASTD Press.

The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. (2005) Mayer Richard, E. Editor. New York, New York. Cambridge University Press.



  1. CJ, 2 things: (1) Your intro took me back to when I took Evolutionary Psych back in the 70s. I can still hear my prof saying, "Imagine vulnerable protoplasm existing in a hostile environment. If it doesn't develop avoidance behaviors, what do you have? Lunch! (2) Your re-written objective is definitely more clear than the one in the video. I like to have a little "What's in it for me?" in my objectives when I can. I'd probably write something like, "At the end of this module, you should be able to design a pictogram with attributes such that its meaning is crystal clear to the observer." -- Russ

  2. Russ: Thanks for the memories. Yep the WIIFM is a viable way to create relevance and motivation to create a learning environment. I recently attended a Webinar that gave me a real challenge on the subject. Lenn Millbower suggested, “The problem with sharing objectives is that objectives are what the organization wants, not what the learner wants!” You just can’t just assume that the learner is gonna buy it; you have to make the goals “personally” relevant.

    FYI -Webinar: A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Learning Go Down: Sponsored by the training Network Magazine: You will need to be a member (free) and you can find the webinar recording via the Event/Resources Tab – “Webinars – Training Magazine Network Free Webinars (show all)”; drill down until you find the title Archive:….


  3. Chris--I prefer your objective. It wasn't "scary" as formally written training objectives are sometimes perceived to be; it also provided information on what I could expect and what was expected of me. The relation to recognition of a stop sign gave me an "I can do this" comfort level. I look at objectives/goals that are shared with the students as information about what we're doing in class, why, and what they can expect -- all put in plain English. I agree with Russ -- some WIIFM is like icing on the cake in an objective.

    Thanks for a good posting!