Technologies can contribute to learning or detract from it, depending on their suitability and how well the learning is designed, according to Dr Itiel Dror. So it’s important to take the brain into account, reports Helen Boddy.

Can you say the months of the year in alphabetical order in a couple of minutes?

It’s highly unlikely that you can because, as Dr Itiel Dror explained, the brain cannot generally process 12 items at one go. You can easily remember them in month order because that’s the way the brain has encoded them.

That was just one example given by Dror in an overview of the brain, how it functions and using technologies in training in a presentation at Learning Technologies conference.

‘In designing learning, you must take into account how the brain works,’ he said. He stressed his approach concentrated on the known scientific facts about how the brain processes information. ‘There are many learning theories and if one of them were correct, I don’t think there would be so many,’ said Dror, who is a scientist at the School of Psychology, University of Southampton.

When you develop learning objects, Dror said you need to be careful that learners approach them in the way you intended in terms of construction and content. You also need to check that they really engage the learner and that they get out of it what you intended.

‘Gaming is a good example,’ said Dror. ‘Students may enjoy the learning but everyone plays games differently, so will they learn what you wanted them to and will they remember it? You need to know the answers to these questions.’

Sometimes technologies contribute to learning, but sometimes they can detract, according to Dror. He demonstrated that the brain will pay attention to one thing and ignore something else. So, learners may concentrate on something other than what they are supposed to be learning, such as something new about the technology.

The brain cannot take in everything as we have limited cognitive power. 'We are a machine with limited resources. We have limited information processing capacity,' said Dror.

He explained that if you put too few pieces of information in your course, you risk not telling students something important. But too many pieces of information, and you can overload the cognitive capacity.

The amount of information taught in one lesson should be seven pieces, plus or minus two, according to traditional thinking. Recent research suggests four items is the optimum - but this also depends on the complexity of the information and what modules in the brain you are targeting, according to Dror.

'We know the brain has sub sections,' he said. 'Selective brain damage lets us investigate these, as do researching dual tasks and functional brain scans.

'So when you design training, you need to think about which parts of the brain you are targeting. You need to make sure learning goes into modules to do with the memory. You can spread learning load over different modules to increase the amount of information that can be processed.'

Although the brain his processing power limits, Dror explained that you can get round these by engaging certain mechanisms, especially if you are sophisticated in designing learning. It helps learners, for example, if learning is a context with which they are familiar. 'They are more likely to learn if they recognise some of the things about the material,' he said.

Another example of aiding the brain, given by Dror, was the US military's tactics in teaching pilots to recognise different types of aircraft, so as to avoid instances of friendly fire. On pictures of the aircraft the differences between them are exaggerated (for example the wing shape) so that cognitive resources focus on learning the differences, rather than having to work out what the differences are.

In designing learning, the first thing to think about is what students should learn - what are the best tools for it and the ways of using them.

E-learning can give very good value for money but can also be a disaster. Many companies simply transcribe their training into e-learning, which is not necessarily suitable for purpose.

'Until now e-learning has not really delivered, but it can do,' said Dror. 'However, some things you just have to do traditionally.

'My main tip would be to focus on the learner, not on the material, and on things that are familiar for them.'