This year I am a taking a cognitive science led approach to learning design within a Level 7 (MBA) module. At first, I wasn’t sure if it would make that much difference to my approach; I had considered cog-sci perspectives in previous learning design exercises and I have produced well-balanced learning environments, demonstrated via learning attainment on the part of my students (exam/assignment/dissertation scores) and the traditional post-module satisfaction survey (happy sheets), scattered with a fair number of nominations for student-led teaching awards.

The problem is that I had a L7 course bomb last year – I had a mix of international/UK/EU students who presented challenges the like of which I had not experienced before. To protect the innocent, I will not be shedding too much light on the nature of those challenges, but suffice to say that the student’s learning behaviours just didn’t meet my expectations. To be fair, if you spoke to the students I would expect them to express dissatisfaction in my contribution to their learning experience. The bottom line, I needed a reboot. I therefore embarked on a total refresh of my approach to course design – taking a leaf out of the Double-Loop Learning playbook, I revised the governing variables for the learning experience and decided that the brain was at the heart of my problem.

My mind wandered to complexity and performance enhancement (success) in such environments. If you speak to the experts within Team GB Olympics about what brings success, Team GB building success over the last three olympic games (who can forget London), they will not speak of silver bullets (single actions), they will speak of marginal gains (minor changes across a wide range of variables). These marginal gains accumulate to create a tipping point, where the state of the system changes, bringing success where there was failure and satisfaction where there was dissatisfaction.

The challenge: how can I improve student satisfaction and performance for overseas students on the MBA HRM module through a better understanding of neuroscience and learning?

Limiting barrier: English as a second language

Core belief: this is a complex challenge, which means there is no single “silver bullet” for change; this is about marginal gains (minor changes across a wide range of variables)

A focus on cognitive science
A focus on cognitive science

Change to practice:

  • Music will be introduced into all sessions to welcome students and stimulate concentration/creativity/reflection.
  • Students will receive no more than 15 minutes of information in one go.
  • Students will have three opportunities to recall and reinforce key learning points within each learning session.
  • Students will take part in a peer teaching programme, where pairs of students (I’m also using a dyadic approach to enhance social learning) will teach a concept, using any approach they wish, every week.
  • Each week the students will write a reflective blog, using the WordPress platform, which will allow us to monitor emerging issues and calibrate the learning experience to more of a one-size-fits-one approach to ongoing learning design.
  • I’m taking the students out of the traditional classroom setting to disrupt potential “norms” related to past learning experiences – weekly sessions will be taking place in an entrepreneurial “tech-hub” setting.

The cognitive science approach to learning within the lecture time is complimented by changes to the way I stimulate learning outside the lecture room. For example, “mandatory” reading is gone; instead students will be given a real world challenge relating to a local organisation. To nudge the learner towards appropriate learning outcomes the students will be given themes to explore each week, all of which relate to the curriculum and the challenge presented by the organisation. They will then post recommended articles, blogs videos etc related to the theme – the intention here is to nudge self-directed habits. Students can ask for assistance and I will be on hand to help them navigate their learning environment, but I will not be mandating the reading of specific articles. This work happens before they come into the physical learning space and I can then use these weekly sessions to enhance their research – supported by access to traditional resources, such as slide decks, articles, videos etc. There is much more, but too much for a blog – the way I write it could quickly turn into a journal article.

I’ll keep you posted on how the experience unfolds. In the mean time, have you considered marginal gains, minor changes across a wide range of variables, and when was the last time you revisited the governing principles that determine your approach to learning design? If you’re interested in marginal gains and taking a cog-sci approach to learning design, drop me a line and let’s chat.


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