Use Brain-Based Curriculum Design to Engage Your Adult Learners


Lack of student engagement is driving you to despair.

You plan and prepare your course or curriculum, arrive early to set up and welcome your students, launch into your lesson or training with high hopes only to have students slump in their seats, gaze out the window, cross their arms in defiance, or even nod off. How could this be happening? You have worked so hard, you care so much, they NEED this and if they’d only get on board, you are sure they would gain something valuable they could use in their lives!

But sometimes, magic does happen in your class.

I’ve had these very same experiences teaching packaged curriculum. But I’ve also had those magic times when something clicked, students leaned in, their faces lit up and I could actually watch them decide to stay in the classroom. They shook off their stupor and actively participated, had aha’s, left class happy, and came back eagerly to the next class session! What was the difference? How could I take these happy accidents and intentionally make them happen every time?

Increase the chances of learning magic by aligning your curriculum activities with how brains learn.

One way I have greatly increased engaging learners in deep and results-producing learning is by designing my own curriculum in alignment with the way that brains take in and process information. The first big secret to this success is to realize that brains don’t have a learning step that says: Read all the bullet points on the slide, listen to the teacher’s long-winded lecture, and say, “AHA, I’ve got it!”

Start by identifying your students’ destination, test drive task & fuel for the journey.

What I learned about effective curriculum design is that it is ALL about my students – what they care about, what they want to accomplish in their lives, and how their brains learn and change to make those accomplishments possible.

In my work helping teachers and trainers design more engaging curricula, I use a metaphor that compares a brain-based curriculum design process with taking a road trip. 

I start my curriculum planning by identifying the students’ destination, what learners will be able to do that will support them in meeting a particular goal in their life that is related to my course topic.  

Then I identify a test drive task. This is a task my learners will do in my course that so closely mimics the destination, that by successfully completing it we both feel confident that they are properly equipped to cross the finish line and be successful at the destination. 

Next I unpack that task to score the fuel –  all those things embedded within the task that my learners need to do, understand and resolve to move down the road, successfully cross the finish line, and operate successfully at the destination. This is my course content. 

Design in ruthless service to the student destination.

Only now am I ready to start designing! The activities of my curriculum should be carefully scaffolded - small steps, in order, from simple to complex to prepare adult learners to get to this identified destination. My goal now is to design in ruthless service to this student destination. If an activity doesn’t move the learning forward toward that destination, it doesn’t get a place in my course design, no matter how cool or fun it is. Period.

Make the learners the center of your teaching and plan to travel in a carpool.

With the destination identified, my content delivery is focused on how the student learns. When I design with a focus on the student’s need, pain, desire, goal and learning process and not on my content expertise, my course can be described as learner-centered rather than teacher-directed. Research has shown that learner-centered instruction is more effective in achieving measurable student outcomes than teacher-directed instruction, regardless of the subject matter being taught.

In addition to this, knowledge that is constructed together in groups rather than alone boosts learning so I plan lots of learning activities for students to work on together. Research has proven that we learn more when we are exposed to a variety of perspectives; get to talk things over or work on things with others, especially when we have to struggle some to do so.

Now you are ready to plan the route for the road trip.

With my intent focused on the destination I am ready to plan an activity route using a brain-based process that aligns with how brains learn. Following, I’ll outline each step and provide an example from a successful lesson that takes a potentially boring topic – being a good listener - but manages to engage learners through its design anyway. This lesson is from Parenting Inside Out, a curriculum that was studied in a randomized controlled trial and found to have a significant impact on reducing recidivism, substance use, depression and increasing positive parent-child contact.

 Step 1: Wake them up and get their buy-in.

Gain attention activities introduce my course or training topic in a provocative way that gains interest and buy-in by suggesting that the learning opportunities to follow will offer potential solutions to learner problems related to the topic at hand.

Here is where I create an activity that immerses learners in a topic-related concrete, sensory experience to awaken focus and stimulate their motivation. This is my big opportunity to help my audience want to be in my course or training because it scratches an itch they have in their life, solves a problem, heals a pain, or shows them a possible path out of a dilemma they are currently facing.

To do this, I might use a topic-related hair-raising story with a happy ending, a surprising statistic, a provocative question, or a poll on some challenging aspect related to the topic. Surprise and humor are very effective at waking students up and releasing neurotransmitters that focus students’ attention. When I have something to offer that speaks to a felt need, I am more likely to stimulate student motivation to engage.

Effective listening example buy in activity:

I share a video clip from the movie Patch Adams in which a therapist does a terrible job of listening. He is so terrible that Patch, played by Robin Williams, begins to say nonsense things to demonstrate the egregiousness of the therapist’s lack of listening. While the therapist appears to hear none of it because he is absorbed with preparing his coffee while his patient talks, the audience gets it loud and clear as Patch becomes more and more outrageous with his comments. The scene ends when the therapist says, “I think you are making fine progress. See you next time in group.” After showing this clip I ask learners, “Have you ever experienced anything like this when you were talking to someone?” This always leads to a very animated discussion as learners vie for an opportunity to share their story about someone who didn’t listen to them. Engagement is no longer a problem!

Step 2: Tell them the destination and give them a road map.

Following the attention gainer and with their interest piqued, I keep the momentum going by sharing the student destination and the roadmap for our journey together. This lets learners know what they will be able to DO related to the topic that will scratch their itch, solve their problem, improve their status, or help them do better at work or home. Then I share the roadmap – the agenda of activities I have planned to help them successfully cross the finish line to the destination.

To seal the buy-in and engagement I invite learners to set a personal learning goal based on the destination by asking them in what way they’d like to experience success with that outcome or destination in their own life.

Effective listening example - destination, road map and goal setting:

I provide the destination in doing terms, related to their real lives: You will use effective listening (“I’m listening” verbal feedback and body language, reflecting back what you hear, and acknowledging how the other person feels) on a phone call or in a face-to-face meeting in an effort to improve a relationship and meet a goal in your life. Then I provide a quick overview of the route – the map of activities for the session. Finally, I invite learners to set a personal learning goal by identifying whom they would like to target with their effective listening and what result they hope to achieve.

Step 3: Start where they are and find out what they already know by eliciting relevant mental models.

In this step I design activities that stimulate and bring forward from long-term memory into working memory anything learners might already know or believe about a topic. It is within working memory that learners will make any adjustments to what they know or know how to do in order to refine or enrich their existing mental models.

Here is where I design activities that get learners to tell me about their experiences, opinions, or knowledge surrounding a particular topic. This way I find out what they know AND they are activating the relevant neural networks in their brain to prepare them for the new learning to come.

Effective listening example - elicit mental models activity:  

I ask learners to think of a time when they felt listened to and to share who did this, what exactly that person did, and how it made them feel. This elicits what they already know about being a good listener. We make a list of things good listeners DO from what they share and I can immediately see what principles and skills they already understand and what is lacking. I will use this list to add in what’s missing in the next step.

Step 4: Provide the fuel and a carpool for the road trip.

Only now are we ready for new content. The new content is all those things we identified earlier that learners need to do, understand and resolve in order to successfully perform the test drive task, cross the finish line and operate effectively at the destination, that they don't already know.

Here is where I design activities that deliver the novel content through interactive strategies that engage multiple senses while providing graduated (scaffolded) exposure to new skills and material in a carpool setting. I give them 1 chunk of fuel in a 5 – 20 minute activity that teaches something they must understand, do or resolve, starting where they told me they were in the elicit mental models activity in step 3. I create an activity that requires them to engage with others to explore the new content together.

Effective listening example – provide fuel and carpool activity:

I present the remaining effective listening behaviors with a handout and role-play demonstrations, using scenarios that are meaningful to these learners. Since these are incarcerated parents trying to gain access to their children I demonstrate listening behaviors that validate and empathize with the fear, anger, and reluctance of their children’s caregiver to grant access through phone calls, letters and visits. I invite learners to role-play with me and ask them to play the role of the angry/hurt caregiver while I play them, modeling the effective listening skills. This often creates epiphanies as learners have the experience of being listened to and the experience of voicing the objections of their child’s caregiver, which increases empathy for that person’s position.

I ask learners in the audience to identify the skills they observe me use from the handout. This gives them practice identifying the variety of ways the skills can show up in real life, enriching and adding nuance to their effective listening mental model.

Step 5: Run practice with feedback.

Each chunk of new fuel needs to be followed by an opportunity for guided practice with feedback. These practice activities provide opportunities for learners to try out what they’ve learned while being coached by peers and their teacher. Learners practice, role-play, give and receive feedback, reflect, and report out about their reflections, refining their understanding and abilities through this process.

Effective listening example – practice with feedback:

Learners work in pairs to role-play the same scenarios. Their task is to first do the role-play the wrong way (without the effective listening skills) and then do it the right way and to discuss the differences in how they both felt and what was accomplished in each version.

Step 6: Repeat with cycles of 5-20 minute chunks of fuel, followed by practice with feedback for each new piece of new content.

Then I give leaners the next chunk of content, the second step of a process or skill, or a second idea about the topic.

I invite learners to experiment, manipulate, try out ideas and skills, adding that new piece of content to what they learned in the previous round of new content and practice. I repeat steps #4 and #5 two or three more times to gradually build my learners’ ability to do, understand and resolve issues related to the student destination. As they continue to do this in additional rounds they are adjusting, enriching, reshaping and refining their mental models that they pulled into working memory at the start of the lesson, building their knowledge and skill.

Step 7: Give the test drive task and the success checklist.

As a reminder, the test drive task is designed in such a way so that successful completion of this task will give my learners and me a reasonable indication that they have the skills and understanding necessary to operate successfully at the destination. The test drive task should mimic the destination as closely as possible.

Here is where I create a final activity that requires learners to use what they learned and apply it to their learning goal. When I make the assignment, I also provide a success checklist. This checklist states the expectations for what should be included in the final work product, process or demonstration because learners perform better when they know the criteria of success.

Effective listening example –test drive task and success checklist:

Students work in pairs to write up a conversation plan for one of the scenarios that the group generated. Students do best when they can generate scenarios as they know where their pain points are and what they want to ask for and work on!

The conversation plan asks learners to anticipate objections and to respond to those objections using the effective listening skills learned in class such as validating what the speaker says, empathizing with their position, refraining from defensiveness, and using responsive strategies to move the conversation respectfully forward. This assignment is accompanied by a success checklist that lists the expected components of an effective conversation plan and asks learners to evaluate their conversation plan using the checklist. 

At the next class session, the pairs present their conversation plan by role-playing it for another pair, who also complete a success checklist while they watch. Pair #2 presents their evaluation with any recommendations for refining the plan pair #1 just presented. Then the pairs switch roles. The teacher moves around the room, observing both role-plays and feedback sessions, making notes as she does so. At the end, learners turn everything in - their conversation plans, self-evaluations and peer evaluations.

Finally learners take another copy of the conversation plan and success checklist to prepare to have a conversation related to their personal learning goal. These are completed and turned in after learners have had a phone call, visit, appointment or even a letter in which they present their request and respond to objections with effective listening. If the learner is only able to use a letter, s/he makes guesses about objections and uses reflection and validation statements in the letter.

After they implement their conversation plan in person, on the phone, or in a letter they complete a reflection on how well they accomplished their learning goal or what else they think they need or need to do to accomplish that goal. This completes the learning event having facilitated the process of taking learners from buy-in for the outcome, setting of personal learning goal related to the topic, reflection on and comparison with what they already know about that topic, exploration of new concepts and skills to enrich their mental models, practice and trying out of new knowledge and skills, and then application of their new understandings and abilities to their real life as they use what they've learned to address their learning goal.