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Utilizing Psychology in Instructional Design

In my previous post , I briefly introduced the different types of learning, both primary and secondary, and explained how each learning style can be incorporated into the field of Instructional Design. This week I am going a little further into detail as to the neural processes involved in each part of the brain associated with each type of learning and how each learning style has it’s own special qualities and characteristics. But why is this important to an Instructional Designer? As Instructional Designers, we need to understand how to best present your information so the highest number of learners can absorb and retain the most amount of information.

General Learning Theory: In the field of Psychology, Learning Theory is a huge topic of research. Researchers have discovered how the brain makes it possible to bring in new information and categorize it, much like a filing system. The brain uses several areas of the brain to process and store new information. The three main areas of the brain involved in processing and storing new information are the Orbitofrontal Cortex (located in the front of the brain, just behind the eyes) which is involved in decision making (Schultz & Tremblay, 2006; Smith, Yu, & Pereira, 2011; Barbas, 2007), and the two dorsolateral prefrontal regions (located just above the Orbitofrontal Cortex, behind your forehead) which is involved in executive functions (i.e. completing a task or swerving to avoid an obstruction in the road) (Elliot, 2013).

These highly specialized areas of the Frontal Lobe help us in so many different facets of learning but they are not the only piece of the puzzle. Learners utilize several aspects of their environment and personal strengths to learn faster and more readily within their environment to better adapt and survive. In my last article, I wrote about some of the different styles of learning (visual, logical, aural, verbal and physical) as well as some secondary learning styles (social and solitary) that combine to allow for the best possible learning outcome for the individual. Let’s take a deeper look at those learning styles to see what areas of the brain are used in each learning style so, as Instructional Designers, we can fully understand why certain learning styles work better in certain environments.

Visual: Visual learners prefer pictures, images and spatial understanding (Tallal, 2014). This learning style learns best when material is highly visual. As an Instructional Designer the use of images, photos, flowcharts, graphs and other visual tools to help the highly visual learner grasp a concept.

The visual learning style uses the Visual Cortex of the brain, located in the occipital lobe. The Visual Cortex of the brain harbors functions like categorization, visual recognition and learning. Visual learners can memorize charts, graphs, pictures and other visual representations of information better than reading or hearing information.

Logical: Logical learners prefer using logic, reason and systems (Tallal, 2014). This learning style is enhanced when the learner is given instruction that is based in logic, ie. 1+1=2 and 2+2=4. They are able to logically figure out the next step. It is also referred to as the Cognitive Learning Style. Instructional Designers can use this to their advantage by using statistics and mathematics to help the learner understand the content better with a realistic portrayal of data.

Logical thinkers utilize their Parietal Lobe, more specifically the left side (located just above the left ear), which drives logical thinking and deduction (Schacter, Gilbert, & Wegner, 2009). While the Parietal Lobe is responsible for quite a few functions, in terms of learning, the lobe helps to connect the dots and use past knowledge to learn something new, in a sort of building block or scaffolding type of learning.

Aural: Aural learners prefer the use of sound or music and often put study materials to music and sing along to learn a new concept or task (Tallal, 2014). This learning style comprehends information best when it is put to music. Song lyrics, melodies and music help the learner remember the information better and for longer.

Aural learners utilize the Auditory Cortex located in the Temporal Lobe of the brain (Cf. Pickles, 2012). This cortex receives signals from the inner ear and translates it into a signal the brain can understand and utilize. For example, a person can differentiate between the sound of a car horn and the sound of a kitten meowing. The Auditory Cortex is responsible for the translation of sound within the brain so the Prefrontal Cortex can decide what to do with that information (Beament, 2001). If you hear your car alarm go off, you would be pretty likely to check on your car. This is because your brain has translated that sound and your Prefrontal Cortex has made the association to your car resulting in the decision to check the car.

The Auditory Cortex is also responsible for recognizing pitch, timing and rhythm (Deutsch, 2010). Aural learners often learn best when music is added to the subject matter as a sing along or a certain classical song for studying certain subjects, that way the brain associates the subject with the song and the brain can unlock the memories associated with the song; in this case, the subject matter being studied. For example, if you study your history notes to a certain Bach symphony and study your anatomy notes to Chopin and your philosophy notes to Tchaikovsky, it will become easier to retrieve those notes from your memory when associating them with the music you studied the notes to.

Verbal: Verbal learners prefer the use of words both in speech and writing (Tallal, 2014). They can easily be handed instructions and be able to read through and complete the task. This learning style finds it easy to complete tasks based on written instruction. Written instruction could include a written transcript of the module you’re teaching, a reference guide hitting key points of the module, or even follow along worksheets that the learner can complete throughout the module.

Verbal learning is one of the more complex styles of learning as it involves many areas of the brain. The learner must see and read the directions or information needing to be learned using the Visual Cortex within the Occipital Lobe, they then need to process that written language using the Wernicke’s area of the brain which is responsible for both written and auditory language processing (Fitzpatrick, Purves, Augustine, 2004). The location of Wernicke’s area within the brain is difficult to describe, as it is a highly specialized part of the brain allowing the understanding of spoken and written language. It has several branching extensions into different lobes of the brain allowing for internal thought and problem solving. Considering its function being as great as it is and input coming from several sources, this makes sense that it would not be limited to any one section of the brain.

Physical: Physical learners prefer the use of the body, hands, and sense of touch (Tallal, 2014). Physical learners quite literally learn a task by doing that task. This learning style needs something a little more hands-on. Worksheets and work along problems are good for this type of learning because they are following along step-by-step and doing the problem with you before they try it on their own.

While learning can be enhanced by increased blood flow to the brain (i.e. exercise), some learners learn better by physically completing a task rather than watching or reading about it. This learning style is unique because it uses several parts of the brain to complete a task. The learner must use their Prefrontal Cortex to make decisions about the task as well as using the Premotor Cortex (located in the Primary Motor Cortex in the mid-brain, just above the Temporal Lobe). The Premotor Cortex is responsible for motor control and spatial guidance (like reaching) (Woolsey, C.N., Settlage, P.H.,  Sencer, Hamuy, and Travis, 1952). Let’s use the example of a small child playing with wooden blocks in specific shapes. The child picks up a block and begins trying to fit it into certain holes in the container but hasn’t learned their shapes yet. How do they know which block goes in what hole? Through physical learning, the child can figure out through trial and error which blocks fit into which hole. After some repetition, the child can begin to recognize the shapes and begin to accurately fit the block to its proper hole.

Social: Social learners prefer to learn in groups or with other people to collaborate and solve problems or to complete a task (Tallal, 2014). This learning is a substyle of learning which incorporates collaboration and different perspectives into the learning environment, this helps encourage people to talk through the learning process together so they all teach each other about the topic from their perspective.

Solitary: Solitary learners prefer to work alone using self-study (Tallal, 2014). This learning is a substyle in which the learner does not need outside motivation or mentoring. The learner is able to work alone and find all the information and resources necessary to complete a task.

When it comes to being an Instructional Designer, understanding the different ways people learn can greatly help in the process of creating customized instruction for the client. By better understanding learning processes and the functions of the brain and collaborating with the client, Instructional Designers can artfully create a learning environment that works for any and all types of learners so everyone is able to learn necessary information easily and quickly.


What frustrations have you had with learning? How has Instructional Design helped you learn about a new subject? Please comment below with your Instructional Design success stories.



Balleine BW, O’Doherty JP (2010). “Human and Rodent Homologies in Action Control: Corticostriatal Determinants of Goal-Directed and Habitual Action”. Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews. 35: 48–69. doi:10.1038/npp.2009.131.

Barbas, H. (2007). “Specialized elements of orbitofrontal cortex in primates.”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1121: 10–32. doi:10.1196/annals.1401.015.

Beament, James (2001). “How We Hear Music: the Relationship Between Music and the Hearing Mechanism”. Woodbridge: Boydell Press: 93.

Deutsch, Diana (February 2010). “Hearing Music in Ensembles”. Physics Today. p. 40.

Elliott R (2003). Executive functions and their disorders. British Medical Bulletin. (65); 49–59

Fitzpatrick, David; Purves, Dale; Augustine, George (2004). “27 Language and Lateralization”. Neuroscience. Sunderland, Mass: Sinauer. ISBN 0-87893-725-0. OCLC 443194765.

Cf. Pickles, James O. (2012). An Introduction to the Physiology of Hearing (4th ed.). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, p. 211 f.

Schacter, D. L., Gilbert, D. L. & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Psychology. (2nd ed.). New York (NY): Worth Publishers.

Schultz W, Tremblay L (2006). Involvement of primate orbitofrontal neurons in rewards, uncertainty, and learning. In Zald DH and Rauch SL (Eds.) The Orbitofrontal Cortex. Oxford: University Press.

Woolsey, C.N., Settlage, P.H., Meyer, D.R., Sencer, W., Hamuy, T.P. and Travis, A.M. (1952). “Pattern of localization in precentral and “supplementary” motor areas and their relation to the concept of a premotor area”. Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease. New York, NY: Raven Press. 30: 238–264.


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