Learn, Think, Do


To gain a greater understanding of the learning process, it is a worthwhile investment to consider how the human brain works. With this knowledge, designers can make informed decisions in conjunction with traditional usability and interface evaluations. The research of Dr. Robert Greenleaf and myself on brain-based teaching and learning[1] offers an overview of how humans process for understanding, retention, application, and transfer.

The Sensory System quickly gathers all input that enters the human brain and body – most are discarded immediately. All humans, regardless of gender, age, or environment, learn through the senses. Our capacity to learn is largely determined by the level of our conscious attention to our senses. The more we are aware of what we see, smell, taste, hear, touch, or gather from tone/mood, the more likely we will process information on a thoughtful level. If a sensory input is perceived to be interesting, offers purposeful application, conveys personal meaning, or spikes our curiosity with novelty, the more likely we will choose to attend and engage in a learning process.

The Central Nervous System is comprised of two components: the brain and spinal cord. The central nervous system is responsible for coordinating selected sensory inputs into the rest of our body. Together they actively consider, filter, regulate, and integrate pertinent sensory input into short-term (working) memory. This central nervous system rapidly gathers, organizes, interprets, and makes sense of the inputs, to then prepare our body and mind to adapt and take action.

The Short-Term (Working) Memory Process “draws” from long-term memories to link prior knowledge and previous experiences with new information for understanding. The more humans can relate to what they are learning, the more likely our working memory will “draw” from long-term memories to seek connections, make new meanings, create mental visualizations, and recognize familiar patterns, which in turn prepares the brain to establish relationships, organize information, create categorize, and consider new understandings.

The Long-Term Memory Process retains memories such as ideas, thoughts, interactions, feelings, and visualizations of events that become connected in the brain when “pulled” into working memory. Throughout life, the human brain develops critical connections between short-term and long-term memories, which in turn expands our ideas, thoughts, interactions, feelings, and visualizations of past, present, future, or imagined events.

Learning occurs when we apply and transfer new understandings to other and varied circumstances. When learning environments and conditions engage multiple connections to the brain, humans are more likely to make greater attempts to process, take action, and apply new understandings, which in turn increases long-term memory and sustained understanding.

[1]        Greenleaf, R. & Wells-Papanek, D. (2005). Memory, recall, the brain & learning. Greenleaf Papanek Publications. www.greenleafpapanek.com