On May 7, I attended Dr. Kevin Gumienny’s talk at the E-Learning Symposium 2015 in Austin, TX. The title of his presentation was “The Brainy Way to Better Your Training,” and he kicked it off with a slide bearing this simple phrase—“Science is cool.” This was a declaration that would set the theme of the presentation.
“Theory can be interesting, but remember that it has given us learning styles and other misguided ideas,” Kevin noted. “We need to turn to concepts that have actually been practiced in the real world with demonstrated effectiveness.” With the evidence on our side, we can tell our clients, “I know you want the narrator to read everything on the screen, but research has shown that’s not the best way to facilitate a learning experience.”
The rest of the presentation focused on effective instructional strategies that have the weight of science behind them. These first few strategies—practice testing, spaced repetition, and interleaving—deal with information retention.
Don’t just test the learner once and call it a day. Even after the learner has moved on to module 2, repeat questions from module 1 to help the information stick. If these questions recur throughout the training, the learner is much more likely to remember the information they hold.
Research has shown that repeated practice testing can last up to nine months after training. Those results apply to a variety of ages, disciplines, and learning contexts.
Spaced repetition involves studying the same material over time. At first, this may sound difficult to implement in some kinds of training, like online. But you can structure the lesson cyclically—give the learner some information first, then an assessment, and then repeat that information over time. You don’t have to adhere to that cycle rigidly, but it gives you an idea of how to keep your instruction fresh and effective. Furthermore, it’s actually easier to use spaced repetition in elearning than other formats. You can’t space out a four-hour face-to-face course over a span of four weeks. But that’s easy to do in an asynchronous learning environment.
To make it interesting, consider the different ways you can present the content you’re repeating. If you had initially used a text slide to convey information, try walking the learner through a simulation, animated roleplay, or some other visual representation the second time around. The learner is much more likely to be engaged and remember what they are learning if the content is not being shown in the same way every time.
Let’s say you’re designing a course in ornithology, and your students need to memorize a bunch of bird names. Would it be better to study them all at once, or to break them up into smaller chunks? Research shows that the latter strategy is much more effective.
This gets into cognitive load theory, which holds (among other things) that the learner cannot learn effectively if they are inundated with information. That deluge of content needs to be passed through a filter—so to speak. Split up the information into manageable amounts so that the learner can more easily internalize it and make meaningful connections with the content.
Adib Masumian is an elearning designer in MicroAssist’s Curriculum Development Group.