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7 Must-Try Knowledge Retention Strategies for eLearning Design

We all forget sometimes. But there is a pattern in our forgetfulness. 

We forget names and faces that we learned just a week ago, yet we remember characters from a movie that we had watched decades earlier.

We forget the dates we had learned in history class back in school, but we remember all the details of a chemistry experiment from the same period.

We forget some stories, but some others remain etched in our minds even years after we have read them.

As an instructional designer, you want to decode this pattern. You want to know why people remember certain events and information and not others because you want your learners to remember what you teach. You want them to retain knowledge for a long term. That's our ultimate goal, right?

Also read: These Are The Reasons Why Learners Forget Your Training

Ensuring that learners remember the knowledge till the time they get the opportunity to apply it is critical for the success of your training program. But it is easier said than done.

Here are 7 proven knowledge retention strategies you can apply in your course design:

1) Align content with learner needs.

If content isn't relevant, people won't care. That's a universal truth. Aligning content with learner needs establishes the relevance of the training program. You thus ensure that participants are prepared and can seize any opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills in the workplace.

Here are some tips on how to achieve this alignment:

  • Learn all you can about your audience—who they are, what tasks are they expected to perform at the workplace, what do they already know, and what do they now need to know. Here’s a free template to start using. Here’s a free template to start using. 

2) Scatter examples throughout the course.

One of the best ways to make knowledge stick in a person’s mind is to mix dry facts, complicated jargon, long-winded definitions, and lengthy procedures with examples. Examples help learners determine the similarities and differences between various objects and/or ideas and compare and classify them. Examples help learners make sense of an unknown idea or an unfamiliar object by establishing an association with a known element.

Here are some tips on how to wield examples effectively in your course:

  • Ensure that the examples reflect the workplace realities of the learners. You can create case studies or weave practice activities like mock meetings and role-playing games in the program. Read this post to learn about 6 ways you can incorporate examples in your courses.
  • Create examples to provide opportunities for active learning. Let learners learn by “doing” instead of just “listening” to someone rattle off facts and findings.

3) Avoid information overload. 

More is not always merrier when it comes to the amount of information you provide online. Yes, there is something called cognitive load, and it is one of the main reasons why learners fail to retain knowledge.

Here’s the cardinal rule of avoiding cognitive overload: Do NOT stuff your course with too much information. Filter out the inessentials from the course and design the learning such that it is readily comprehended and assimilated to manage the cognitive load on the learners' brains. Include a piece of content only when it is critical to the learning outcome, like when the learner has to memorize the steps of a process. 

Also, carry out a thorough audience analysis, needs analysis and task analysis to determine what learners really need to know. These exercises will help you prioritize content and determine what is critical to fulfilling the learning outcomes and what is merely nice-to-know information. Here’s a post that lists and explains the 5 golden rules of creating relevant and fluff-free courses.

Also read: Avoid Learner Overload: Five Rules for eLearning Course Design

4) Space out the learning

Remember all those nights before the test when you tried to gulp down whole textbooks, memorize loads of formulae, and learn new theorems? You managed to regurgitate the information the next day but did the knowledge stick for long? You probably forgot by the next semester most of what you learned that evening.

Cramming information into a single eLearning course will simply overwhelm the learners. They will get lost trying to make sense of all the facts, stats, definitions, and jargons you dump on them. The result: a learning experience that is stressful, frustrating, and demotivating.

Ensure that you space out the learning.Weave in practice activities in between the course’s modules to create breathing space that will, in turn, let the learning sink in and get cemented in the mind. Spaced-out learning wins over crammed learning, as this post proves.

Neuroscience too provides an understanding of how and why spaced-out learning results in maximum long-term retention of knowledge. According to several studies (Davachi & Wagner, 2002; Lepage, Habib & Tulving, 1998), the hippocampus region of the brain is majorly involved in the encoding, long-term retention, and retrieval of information. The greater the degree of activation of this region, the more effective is the learning. 

These studies and several others have turned many pre-held ideas on effective learning on their head. For instance, repeating lessons as an instructional strategy is not as effective as many lesson plan developers tend to think.

The success of organizational learning rests on the employee’s ability to recall knowledge and apply it to perform a task long after he or she has taken the training. Repeating lessons only boosts short-term performance whereas distributing learning has been proven to lead to greater long-term retention of information and higher retrieval rates.

5) Make learners explore and “discover” the content themselves.

Adults learn best from experience. That’s a fact. We learn best and retain more and for longer when we discover the knowledge ourselves rather than when somebody just “tells” us. So make sure that you create ample opportunities for learners to explore and “discover” the content themselves.

If you want your learners to be able to transfer the learning from the course to the desk, you have to make them think and act the way they are expected to perform in reality and at their workplaces. This means that instead of simply transferring knowledge on the learners and hope they will find "some" use for it, transform your learning content into real learning experiences. 

Here are some other tips:

  • Use case studies to teach problem-solving skills.
  • Pose open-ended questions or illustrate problems to small groups of learners. Trying to solve the problems will help learners exercise their critical reasoning abilities. Then share the answers with others in the group.
  • Include Hotspot discovery interactions.

This post contains a few more nifty tips on how to create experiential courses.

6) Encourage learners to reflect on the material and create action points. 

Reflection gives learners one more opportunity to mentally go over what they have learned. Create such opportunities for reflection by encouraging learners to think up action points that they can work on after they have returned to their jobs. These action points will motivate them to reflect on the knowledge they have acquired and carry on learning even after they have left their virtual classrooms until the time they actually get the chance to apply what they have learned.
Say, your learners are sales personnel who have gone through training on persuasion techniques. A possible action point could be to mull over some popular ads on the television or the social media and identify the persuasion techniques employed in these commercials.

 The above knowledge retention strategies are effective because they make your courses resonate with relevance and brim with dynamism. These techniques suck your audience into the learning journey. The result is higher engagement and increased retention of knowledge in the long run. 

Additional read: 7 Brainy Ways to Boost Knowledge Retention in eLearning 

eLearning Toolkit


Learning that Lasts a Lifetime – By Jose Thomson – October 2016

Learning that lasts through AGES

Karla Gutierrez
Karla Gutierrez
Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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