Toolkit: Ask “What” and “Why” to Boost eLearning Retention

Are you stuck creating courses the same way they were done in the 1990s? There are so many more options now to create eLearning that allows learners to truly have rich experiences and be able to retain so much more of what they learn. Try a simple strategy—ask what and why—to boost eLearning retention.

Choose your own eLearning adventure

An instructor faces a class of highly engaged students at desks, several with their hands raised.

Simply put, whenever you have learning that is linearwith no interactivity besides the occasional knowledge check, you will not have any real learning occurring. Learners need to be stimulated and challenged. Media can help, but it’s not a panacea. A boring PowerPoint slide deck doesn’t turn into something truly effective simply because you’ve added videos, audio, and images. In live training, even a poor PowerPoint presentation can be acceptable, as long as the instructor is engaging and interesting, because the main focus is on the instructor. Plus, learners can ask questions of the instructor, making for a more give-and-take learning experience.

Now we switch to eLearning. If you take that PowerPoint deck and put it online with audio narration and a quiz at the end, you are doing the learner a great disservice. There is no longer an engaging instructor, and learners aren’t able to ask questions.

Rather than trying to replicate the classroom experience, eLearning needs to take advantage of the strengths of individualized, self-paced online learning. If each learner can have a separate experience, each learner can make the choices necessary to reach his or her own learning potential.

The cover of a Choose Your Own Adventure book titled The Mona Lisa Is Missing.

Imagine if, in a live training class, the instructor pulled out a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If you’ve seen one of those, you’ll remember that each page ends with a decision; depending on your decision, you are told to jump to a different page. If an instructor is making all the decisions, every learner gets an identical experience. If instead you gave each learner a copy of the book and let each make his or her own decisions, each learner would have an individual experience.

Ask what and why

In eLearning, think about what the learner needs to learn. Just as importantly, ask the question: Why does the learner need to learn the material? In almost every case, the learner is supposed to acquire knowledge that will help in day-to-day decision-making on the job. Why not incorporate those types of decisions into the eLearning?

As an example, I once helped create a set of courses for personnel who sell pipes and pumps to engineers, to help the salespeople understand the differences between flow, viscosity, pressure, density, and other important factors that dictate what size pipes and what types of pumps would best serve the engineers’ needs.

A row of test tubes contain liquids of different colors.

We could have explained all of these concepts using lots and lots of PowerPoint slides, but nobody would have retained much information that way. Instead, we built a series of interactions that allowed the learners to experiment with these concepts. For instance, for viscosity, we let learners choose the type of liquid in two test tubes (e.g., water and olive oil) and let them drop ball bearings into each. As most would expect, the ball bearing falls more slowly in the olive oil. However, we also let them change the temperature of the liquids using sliders. When the olive oil was heated to a high temperature, the ball bearings would fall faster through the olive oil than through the water. The idea that viscosity breaks down in hotter temperatures was made crystal clear this way.

What the learners needed to learn was the concepts of viscosity, flow, etc. Why they needed to learn them was to understand how the equipment they were selling would perform for their clients.

Asking why can also make it much easier to set up case studies. If you are creating eLearning for call-center telephone workers so that they can learn a new customer software system, simply showing them how to use the system will likely not help much. However, showing learners how much easier it is to help customers with the new system can be much more motivating. This can be done by setting up case scenarios; asking why it’s done a certain way.

Why should I learn to fill out this form completely? Mr. Hanks has called in with a complaint about his service. Let’s hear what he has to say, ask him the appropriate questions, and complete the form.

What would happen if we don’t fill out the form correctly? Mr. Hanks might get upset and might even cancel his service with us.

A man in a blue button-down shirt grimaces at his phone, which is in his right hand.

There’s your reason why. You’ve added a personal, human element to the learning—and made the connection much easier for the learner, who now understands why it’s important to learn the system.

Next month

Now that we’ve explored how asking what and why can boost eLearning retention, we’ll move on to emerging technologies and strategies. In my next column, I’ll discuss some of the newer technologies that are helping learners achieve greater levels of understanding and productivity.

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