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The Secret to Making eLearning Memorable

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As an eLearning professional, which of the following characteristics of your content is most important to you when designing learning: Well written, Easy-to-use, Engaging, or Memorable? I would argue that being memorable is the most important. Why? Because learning is not an end unto itself, learning is a means to an end. We don’t learn just to learn – we learn to change behavior, acquire a new skill, or improve performance. In that light, when we are doing a behavior/skill that we have taken an eLearning course on, we need to remember what we learned so we can apply it at that moment. In other words, learning is only beneficial if we can remember it when we need to apply it. So really the question is “How do we make eLearning memorable?”

There is a simple and proven way to make eLearning memorable: incorporate stories into your content. Stories provide context for your content. They provide the background and situation for why your content is relevant. Learners are able to connect to stories, giving them a scaffold in which to relate to your content.

Brain research supports this idea. If your learning is strictly all content, then your brain processes only factual information. This is done in the executive functioning areas of the brain – mostly in the prefrontal cortex. However, if your learning includes stories that have an emotional impact, then your brain processes much more information. Emotions are processed in the Limbic system, which resides in a deeper and more connected area of the brain. The more areas of your brain that are activated during learning, the deeper the learning and the greater the number of ways there are to access it. By incorporating emotionally impactful stories into your eLearning, you can provide a richer learning experience that your learners can more readily remember and access when they need to use it.

There is an instructional framework that supports the inclusion of emotionally impactful stories, called the Recursive Learning model. It has three components:

  • Facts: This is your content that the learners must understand
  • Story: This is the story, or context, that you provide the learners
  • Autobiographical Story: This is the story that the learners create in their minds when they combine the facts and the story

To use this model to develop an eLearning course, create a micro-story in which you embed the facts that you want your learners to learn within it. To make the story impactful, be sure it includes emotions, realistic dialogue, and authentically represent the situation in which the content is to be applied. Here’s a very brief example.

  • Story: Mia and Ethan are working at their cubicles when the fire alarm goes off
    • Mia – “Is that alarm for real or is it just a drill?”
    • Ethan – “I don’t know- but let’s take the elevator down. I don’t want to get sweaty going down the stairs if it’s just a drill.”
    • Mia – “But what if it’s not just a drill?”
    • Ethan – “Aw, come on- there’d never be a fire here. Do you really want to walk down three flights of stairs?”
  • Autobiographical Story: Learner is prompted with the following question – “How would you respond if you were Mia?”
  • Fact: When there’s a fire in the building, use the stairs and not the elevator

To develop this learning experience, begin with the story. This provides a relatable context for the learners. Next, prompt learners with a question in which they can insert themselves into the story and emotionally connect to it. Finally, follow up with the facts that the learners need to know. In this way, learners can later access this knowledge based on the contextual cues they connected with, the emotions they felt, or simply by remembering the facts. The more ways they can remember the content, the better – that’s the secret to making eLearning memorable.

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Johnny Hamilton is a thought leader, author, and full-stack learning designer who has led projects that have resulted in over a dozen industry awards in corporate learning innovation from Brandon Hall, BIG Innovation, eLearning Magazine, and American Business Association.