How Challenging Should e-Learning Be?

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There is a balance to engaging learners.  As tempting as it is to believe that if we throw in some animations, add audio, and have a trivial pursuit themed game at the end, learners will be engaged and therefore retain what knowledge we intend to impart…the reverse can be true.  And let’s not even quibble over trying to make amazingly interactive training for learners to “know more” instead of “do more”…that is another discussion entirely.

The balance lies in deciding what content to include and incorporating activities that will facilitate learning. You might be tempted to hand learners the answers, making it obvious what conclusions they should draw, theorizing that if learners have success or can “demonstrate” that they know the material, learning has occurred.  However, there is research that supports that learning that is more challenging is related to higher retention and learning.

Bjork and Bjork have a wonderful scholarly article that points at the difference between learning and performance, but the main thrust of the article is vested in “desirable difficulties”.  It speaks to the idea that while cramming for a test can be effective at short term recall, it fails for long term retention.  The answer to this dilemma lies somewhere in the structure and difficulty of the learning experience.

Dorothy Leonard writes for Harvard Business Review about the need to make organizational learning a bit more challenging in her article ‘Why Organizations Need to Make Learning Hard’.  She states, “Both learners and teachers confuse performance during training (termed “retrieval strength”) with long-term retention and the ability to apply the lessons (“storage strength”).”

Not only does this concept necessitate structuring training towards longer retention, it may also mean rethinking how we evaluate the impact of training on organizational performance. Is it enough to test a learner immediately following a training exercise (which may only demonstrate the “cram and test” “retrieval strength”) or are there opportunities to evaluate individual performance in the wake of learning opportunities (“storage strength”?) More challenging for instructional designers? Yes. More impactful for learners? Hmmmm…guess we need to figure out a way to measure that.


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