Technological tails, pedagogical dogs: I’m repeating myself

I’ve read a few interesting papers recently on what makes effective elearning and if/when elearning is more effective than traditional classroom teaching and learning. The bottom line is similar to what I discussed in other posts: it is not the technology or medium of delivery in general that produces better results when it comes to learning, it is the learning methods.

It may be that online learning – from instructional design to authoring tools – facilitates utilising better learning methods. A lecture will produce similar results (typically quite poor understanding and retention) regardless of whether it is delivered in a lecture theatre or online.

Best learning methods

So what learning methods create the largest benefits? Metastudies repeatedly show that rather than relying on straight information presentation, effective learning requires the following:

Retrieval practice and spaced repetitions

Knowledge checks, asking questions, creating opportunities for decision making and other activites that require learners to remember and retrieve knowledge are very effective for long-term retention.

Structuring and guiding attention

Learning improves when we explicitly guide learners’ attention to the most important information (the learning objectives). When designing online content, we should always make clear what the main thing learners need to learn in this module/section/activity is.

Learning is also more effective when prior knowledge is explicitly activated and signposting (or ‘content organisers’) are provided.

Real-world contexts

Learners should be able to see the relevance of the content to real-world contexts. To help achieve this, content delivery should focus on actions and situations, rather than principles and concepts. Real-life examples also help to contextualise the content covered.

Realistic practice and decision making

To help retention and reinforce the importance of content covered, learners should have numerous opportunities for translating facts and information into actual actions and situations. Application of knowledge should be an integral part of any learning material.

Frequent feedback

Frequent feedback is necessary to clarify misunderstandings, create correct mental representations of concepts and facilitate retrieval practice.


Content should be provided in a variety of formats – othewise it gets monotonous and predictable.


Useful reading