Make Learning Stick

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A few months ago I had the pleasure of facilitating the Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) course, not once but twice. One of the ongoing assignments in FLO is to reflect on and share weekly learning nuggets. As we all know, teaching is the best way to learn so I had many of my own learning nuggets over the course of each FLO session. 

Time is not on our side

The first nugget was that you can’t actually make time. Seems we all get about 24 hours per day and all we can do is try to manage that time as wisely as possible. This is one of those lessons I seem to have to re-learn every few years.

Respect preferences

The second learning nugget was about diversity and choice. I don’t want to edge into the learning styles debate but I think it’s safe to say that folks like to consume educational content in a variety of ways.

Several of the FLO participants indicated a preference for reading content in paper form. FLO is a Moodle course and many of the assigned resources in FLO are provided via the Moodle books option. Moodle books are easy to view online and to save to pdf or to print for offline viewing. In this particular course the books also included several short videos – a nod to honouring diverse ways of learning by differentiating content. But, with no transcripts available for those who prefer to read, or read along, some participants felt that the videos took too much time to review. Other participants loved the videos. This got me thinking about how content is provided.

Transcribe videos

If you provide video, you should and when possible, also provide transcripts or notes that capture the key points made in the video. Most people are able to read 2-3 times faster than they can listen so transcripts save time. Adult learners are often short on time and like me they are unable to make more. Transcripts or summaries for videos would provide a choice.

What really works?

The third, related nugget, was around the differences between what people prefer and what actually works. One thing we know for sure as educators and trainers is that when it’s too easy, learning suffers.

“Best Practice” is to present written material in a clear and easily read font with lots of white space. Cognitive load theory suggests that this reduces the amount of mental energy used so that more energy can be used for learning the content rather than struggling to read it. The problem with that is the brain doesn’t work that way. Other research suggests that fonts and layout, on paper and online, that are more difficult to read, are actually more likely to be attended to, remembered and understood.

See If you want people to pay attention, use an ugly font like Comic Sans for more on this.

A biological imperative

We are wired to pay attention to and remember things that are unique, unusual, or surprising. We also pay attention, focus more, and try harder to understand when something in the environment signals our brains that what we are doing is difficult. This relates to the idea that “we remember what we think about” not what we read, hear, or see.

If this is true, we should develop learning experiences where learners are exposed to novelty and have to think about what we are hoping they will learn. And not just in a transient thought kind of way. Learners should have to really think hard to make learning stick well. BUT, if we’re not careful this can frustrate learners and if it’s too difficult, many will just leave.

Focus on interactivity

Games and other interactive content do a great job of motivating learners to think. These are the opposite of presenting content for passive consumption. The challenge is that games, branching scenarios, and other kinds of interactive learning objects can be expensive to produce. The technology for interactive learning development is becoming less expensive and more accessible but the cost to design is still quite high. Interactive learning takes time to design and develop and time costs.

Forums, especially gamified forums (points for participation) that are well-facilitated and that include thought-provoking, open-ended questions, can get folks thinking, reflecting-out-loud, and participating in dialogues and discussions for a lower up front investment, compared to other kinds of interactive content. Development cost is replaced by the cost of well trained and engaging facilitators. So either way, creating engaging and made-to-stick learning experiences has a value and a cost that goes beyond the price of the content itself.

This brings us back to FLO. One way to reduce the costs of well-facilitated online learning is to train staff to facilitate. FLO is a great option for this so be sure to check out the Facilitating Learning Online course via BC Campus.


What else works to increase learning engagement and participant retention? Would love to chat on Twitter about this!?

One reply on “Make Learning Stick”

The cutting edge between attracting your learner’s attention and engaging them in learning OR frustrating them so they quit or just participate in the minimum to get by. It’s a balancing act – as a facilitator and as a learning designer. You’ve outlined some interesting ideas in terms of how to keep the balance on the positive, “sticky” side. Thx 4 sharing!