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Effort, Time & Focus: A Recipe For Interactive e-Learning


by Ellen Burns-Johnson, instructional writer/designer


Do you remember notes? Good, old-fashioned notes, written on paper, and likely ornamented with doodles. Remember those?

I still scribble in my spiraled notebook occasionally, but most of the time I'm a digital note-taker. When I take notes during meetings, I do so on my laptop in OneNote. I list and schedule reminders to do household chores in Google Keep. I bookmark articles using Pocket and Evernote. I rely pretty heavily on these apps to stay organized and focused, and I bet many of you do, too.

So when I came across an article explaining how taking notes in longhand may be better for long-term retention of conceptual information, I was a bit perturbed. Why might this be? Do I need to uninstall my apps and shake my writing hand back into shape?

Learning takes mental effort

The study described in the article, which was posted by the Association for Psychological Science, found that lecture attendees who took notes by hand retained more information than those who took notes on a laptop. The difference in recall was even more pronounced when the information took the form of complex concepts (as compared to simple facts).

One possible reason for the difference is the amount of cognitive effort needed to take notes by hand. It's often tempting or beneficial for note-takers to copy words verbatim from the source. On a laptop, that's easy to do; indeed, notes taken on a laptop often resemble transcripts. Conversely, pen-and-paper note-takers are generally forced to summarize, since few people can write fast enough to keep up with a naturally paced conversation. Summarizing requires more cognitive processing, which in turn helps the brain retain and recall information more effectively.

Speaking purely anecdotally, I think this makes sense. I take more notes using my laptop, but when I write by hand, I do tend to remember more of what I wrote. I summarize and annotate, adding little notes and sketches that help me interpret the information.

Learning takes time

This phrase from the APS' blog post stands out for me:

"The results revealed that while the two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions." 

In business, most of what we need employees to do in business doesn't involve simple fact recall — more frequently, people are asked to remember complex concepts or to develop a particular set of skills. To use familiar language from Bloom's cognitive taxonomy, most learners have jobs that move beyond simple "knowledge" and into comprehension, application, analysis and so forth.

In this way, the results of the note-taking study aren't really surprising. We already know that if learning is to persist long enough to be useful, it will require some time for reflection and consideration.

Yet sometimes it can be very difficult to carve out time for deeper learning. There is a lot of pressure to keep people working at their desks, on the sales floor, or out in the field. It's important that training efforts are focused in the right direction.

Learning takes focus

The more effective note-takers from the study were those who didn't try to capture every bit of information. Similarly, our training shouldn't try to convey every bit of material. It should focus on helping learners become more skilled at important parts of their work.

Here are three ideas for keeping training focused on the right stuff:

1. More practice

In e-learning, interactions that include realistic, context-based practice, like branching scenarios or learning games, are an effective and efficient way to improve skill. Yet sometimes interactions are treated like a quiz — one or two scenarios featured late in the training, at the end of a long presentation.
Let's flip this around! Instead of e-learning that's mostly presentation and a little bit of interactivity, plan for the bulk of the training to be interactions that require employees to apply the skills they need for their work. A deep understanding of the relevant concepts will emerge from the time learners spend in these interactions, especially if you include that information as reference material in the interactions themselves.

2. Quality feedback

It's also important to include helpful feedback. Quality practice time involves analysis of one's own performance. In e-learning, we can aid learners in this by coaching them on the choices they make. Feedback is where concepts can really "click" for learners, so it should be well-written, meaningful, and honest.

3. Performance support

Everyone uses a variety of strategies to support memory. Remember the collection of apps I mentioned at the beginning of this post? The truth is, some things aren't important to remember, and some things are, but only at the time of need. Explore ways to use performance support tools so learners won't spend time practicing skills or memorizing information that they won't often need to use, but that they can reference when and if they need it.


If we want learning to stick, there are no shortcuts. It takes effort, time, and focus. The strategy employed by the pen-and-paper note-takers in the study―to concentrate on the most important material—is one that can serve us well as instructional designers, too.

Want to share this post? Here are some ready-made tweets:

Click to Tweet: A Recipe For Interactive #eLearning "Learning requires effort, time and focus" http://hubs.ly/y0GN4W0 via @customelearning  @EllenBJohnson

Click to Tweet: If we want #learning to stick, there are no shortcuts. It takes effort, time, and focus. http://hubs.ly/y0GN4W0 #interactiveelearning 

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