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Make It Hard to Forget: 6 Principles to Help Your Learners Remember Anything

You've worked hard and are creating your best eLearning course to date. But do you wonder if people will remember any of the content a few weeks down the road?

Fostering effective eLearning requires understanding how memory works. Beyond that, we need to master crucial ways to help learners encode new principles in their brains. This requires a grasp of six premises.


Principle #1: The Usefulness Theory

In a nutshell, you must be motivated to learn something to remember it well. The motivation might be a subject you dearly love. Or you might need to know the information to keep your job.

Which memories are most likely to be stored? If you guessed those linked to personal meaning, you get an “A”. In contrast, when content has no relevance to a learner’s life, it makes it more difficult to form a connection in the mind. Caine and Caine (1991) explained it clearly: "the greater the extent to which what we learn is tied to personal, meaningful experiences, the greater and deeper our learning will be.” 

Your job as an eLearning professional is to create content that is needed and used. This means examining their knowledge, attitudes, needs and expectations in advance. Then, try to emphasize the "What's in it for me?" and find its personal significance. 

Principle #2:  Familiarity 

The basic idea is that memory gets a boost when information is related to something with which eLearners are already familiar. The link helps them remember new material more efficiently.

In terms of course design, this means constantly looking for things that link new concepts and information to familiar stuff. Try putting together related concepts so that you help learners organize information into meaningful bits that are easier to remember.

You can integrate new information with eLearning experience by:

  • Including application examples like research projects or cases
  • Employing metaphors and analogies
  • Using extreme examples for emphasis
  • Linking information to context skyrockets the likelihood of pulling it out of your memory later.

How do you accomplish that? Try:

  • Linking it to something with a similar sound
  • Linking to a location
  • Mind mapping the information
  • Rhyming it
  • Grouping it
  • Categorizing it
  • Alphabetizing it

Principle #3: Better Attention = Better Memory

Start with the premise that people have to pay attention to information before they can remember it. The first obstacle to memorable content is getting it people to pay attention. You can’t remember something if you haven’t read and understood it, and the more attention you pay, the more likely it is you will remember. Getting eLearners to pay full attention to material isn’t easy in a culture immersed in information overload.

Here are some design tips:

  • Incorporate as many senses as you can in the initial learning
  • Describe the gap in knowledge you’re attempting to fill
  • Spur curiosity by creating a “hook” that involves a controversy, example or case
  • Grab attention with an image or video
  • Begin with a struggle or anecdote to personalize information
  • Don’t use too many different types of materials at once.
  • Don’t give learners  two conflicting things to attend to at the same time.

Read more on this fascinating topic: Why Thinking About Paying Attention To Something Helps You Remember It

Principle #4: Length Matters

In an effort to relate to eLearners’ needs, we tend to worry about including enough information. Since less is truly more as far as memory, you must be selective.

Learners remember more and for longer when information is presented in shorter chunks, ideally 20 minutes with five-minute breaks between each section. For the most effective eLearning development, designers should introduce something completely different in the breaks such as an interactive activity, a discussion session, or at least something novel.  A short break will revitalize the learner’s attention and they will be much more likely to remember information from throughout the course.

Considering the tsunami of information that greets us every day, it’s essential to determine which immediate performance outcomes learners expect from your course. Keeping these outcomes in mind, divide information into two piles: Need to Know and Nice to Know. Build your material around the needs, not the niceties. 

Recommended read: This Standford University paper on how to deliver memorable lectures, reveals some powerful insights for eLearning professionals.

Principle #5:  Engage Emotions

Simply put, the more engaged eLearners are, the more willing they are to learn new material. They will best remember those things that engage them emotionally. Things associated with emotions such as fear, surprise, immense joy or pain are deeply etched in learner's memory.

This is good news.You can tap the emotions of students to help them learn better. Fostering this requires you to point out or create personal links to information you want them to remember to increase their engagement and make training last. 

Get them involved in the material by encouraging questions, taking advantage of group discussions and allowing brainstorming sessions. All these activities cause eLearners to spend time pondering the information you present.

Collaboration and sharing foster commitment. When learners generate content, they retain it better than they do when simply reading prepared material.


Principle #6: Meaningful Organization

The clearer the organization of material, the more robust the memory of it will be. Our brains love organization. When we open a book, we look to see if it has chapters.

This means you should group ideas into meaningful categories for the most successful eLearning. Learners store information in their long-term memory in an organized fashion that mirrors their current perception of the world.

Easy ways to organize include alphabetizing a list, using mnemonic devices and including no more than seven items in any one grouping.

Master these principles and it will be hard to forget your eLearning course.

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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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