You already know something about surprise in learning and memory creation. Let’s say, for instance, that you drive the same route you always drive, every day, to and from work. It’s such a familiar routine that some days you experience the slightly scary feeling of arriving at the office without quite remembering how you got there. And some days — once in awhile — something unusual happens: for instance, a car ahead of you jumps into your lane without warning, causing you to slam on brakes. You notice that. When you get to the office, you still remember that.

Several lines of thought converge on the role of surprise in learning. One biological explanation says novel stimuli activate the hippocampus, triggering release of dopamine; another says the brain is a pattern-matching machine, with the basal ganglia jumping to attention when something breaks a pattern. Cognitive psychology recognizes the importance of the “discrepant event”: something that has an unexpected outcome engages the brain and encourages problem solving and critical thinking. If you had a good science teacher, I’ll bet you remember things such as demonstrations showing that a Styrofoam ball and a metal ball with the same volume will, when dropped, hit the ground at the same time.

When surprised, we jump-to a little, pay more attention, give something some thought. One of our best industry thinkers, Kathy Sierra, a resident of the brain-as-pattern-matching camp, puts it in simple, commonsense terms: “The brain spends far less time processing things that meet expectations, than it does on things that don't.”

Note that we’re talking here about what happens when the brain is not otherwise engaged. This isn’t the same as selective attention, in which a person chooses — or when instructions so direct — to focus on one thing while filtering out others. The famous “gorilla” video examines selective attention. Read to the end and I’ll tell you more.


So how is this useful to us? Well, incorporating what we understand about the role of surprise can help us overcome several common challenges in e-Learning design.

Challenge: Standard design templates, colors, and fonts.

You’ve probably seen (or developed) examples. Screen after identical screen with gradient green bar at the top, 14 point Arial font, company logo at lower left … starts to feel a little like that morning drive to work, doesn’t it? The learner gets lulled into clicking along, and even if an interaction occasionally interrupts the clicking, it can feel like same old-same old. Don’t change onscreen navigation — that should be consistent — but consider what you might do to otherwise break the lull. A real interaction or other break in the flow can be useful. Or just popping up a hot pink screen with a review question in a different font can pull attention back to the program. Try to argue against the standards. If you’re working under design constraints, can you get away with one screen out of 25 looking different?

Challenge: Compliance training

I’m speaking here particularly of the common sense or annual-refresher variety. Even when you argue against it, you’ll sometimes end up with learners well beyond the novice stage, with an understandably ho-hum attitude toward the subject matter. (Frequent flyers: Do you pay attention every time the flight attendants review the preflight passenger safety information?) Borrow from the classroom-training practice of using a “grabber,” either in opening or within the program: try a little-known fact, a case with an unexpected twist or outcome, or a venture down a less-than-routine path. Or present an opening set of questions with surprising answers. Or offer an employee whose response is completely different from what the scripted “leadership training” steps might have suggested. Or have something go better than expected. Do something new and different. Back to the airline safety information example, think about the Southwest Airlines flight attendants who combat the passenger inattention with surprise: they sing the information. Or rhyme it, or dance along to it. Or imitate the pilot doing it. You notice.

Challenge: The learner stands alone.

One of the challenges with e-Learning, particularly standalone programs, is that there is usually no human at the ready to answer questions or clarify material. Sometimes that causes us to err on the side of caution: we try so hard to make sure things flow in a tight sequence and linear, logical way (“smooth transitions!”) that we forget the value of an occasional abrupt shift, or unexpected information, or change of scenery.

Some caveats

First, there’s a difference between surprising the learner and causing him or her to fail. Interesting questions and unexpected turns should pique curiosity, not humiliate. Second, the event, idea, or outcome can’t be so discrepant that the learner dismisses it out of hand. But otherwise, if we need learners to re-focus or give thought to a particular idea, breaking the pattern may be just the ticket.

(Special thanks to Bert Bates and Kathy Sierra for their thoughts on surprise-enhanced learning.)

Want more?

Hawkins, J. & Blakeslee, S. (2005). On Intelligence. St. Martin's Griffin Holland.

Fenker, D. & Schotze, H. Learning by Surprise. Scientific American. December 17, 2008.

Gallagher, M. (2006). Different Roles for Amygdala Central Nucleus and Substantia Innominata in the Surprise-Induced Enhancement of Learning.The Journal of Neuroscience, April 5, 2006, 26(14):3791-3797

Niepel, M., Rudolph, U., Schutzwohl, A., & Meyer, W. Temporal characteristics of the surprise reaction induced by schema-discrepant visual and auditory events. Cognition & Emotion 8 (5): 433-452.

Interested in more general, less-technical, but fascinating information on brain biology? Try Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight (Viking, 2008), also available in a wonderful TED talk version at .

Selective attention is something of the inverse of our discussion here, in which learners are instructed to tightly focus on particular data while filtering out the rest, often to the exclusion of important information. This happens elsewhere in the brain. Check out “The Gorilla Experiment” video at