Most self-paced learning is designed to be consumed in one setting in a click-through module, maybe with a quiz tacked on at the end if you’re lucky. This approach works for topics that don’t require much on-the-job application, but for topics that are essential to job performance, it falls short. Without proper reinforcement, learners can forget much of what they learn, which should discourage anybody from investing in e-learning without a sustainment plan in place. But what if something else is at play here?

There are several misconceptions about learning that we in learning and development (L&D) have carried over from formal education. Here are a few that impact the way many organizations design e-learning:

  • Don’t make the course too hard; we’ll lose attention or ruin engagement.
  • We need quizzes to see if learners have passed or failed a course.
  • We don’t have time for proper sustainment or reflection after e-learning.
  • Learners need to be shown what to do before they can do it.

As Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel wrote in their book “Make it Stick,” these common beliefs have been proven wrong by brain science research conducted over the past 30 years.

What can you do if some of these myths persist in your organization? As a training professional, you can design your curriculum in a way that honors the way the brain actually learns. That task can seem daunting, but you can start by reversing these misconceptions in your next e-learning initiative:

It’s Too Hard → Difficult Is Good

Research shows that cognitive effort is required for learning to stick. Make sure your self-paced courses are not too easy and that learners understand it’s OK to struggle. They should be easy to access but not easy to complete, and learners should understand that if they struggle, it means they’re on the path to true learning.

Pass/Fail Grades → Scores Don’t Matter

Effective assessments aren’t about passing or failing; they are about practicing. Frequent quizzing helps training participants consolidate learning and disrupts the forgetting curve. Lower the stakes so that learners become unconcerned about their scores and focus on how retrieval impacts memory. When designing quizzes, require learners to think back to concepts they learned earlier in the course to make important connections.

Reflection as an Afterthought → Reflection Is a Must

Post-learning processing and contemplation are often tossed aside as unimportant by learners pressed for time. As a result, they do not fully grasp the importance of reflection to learning. According to Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, reflection involves “several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.”

Design your self-paced courses with post-learning follow-up and reflection to give learners the opportunity to encode learning in their long-term memory. This follow-up does require more time spent in training, but the impact on retention makes that time worth it.

Learners Need Solutions → Learners Need to Explore Problems

Learning is improved when learners have time to wrestle with a problem before they receive a solution. Most coaching strategies are built on this premise, with expert coaches leading the learner through a series of high-value questions to arrive at a solution instead of simply revealing what to do. As a trainer, this strategy means moving beyond traditional e-learning methods, which show what “good” looks like through a story or video and then asks learners to replicate those behaviors. Avoid the temptation to reveal the solution too soon, even if it means simply asking a question before teaching something new.

In order to maximize the time and money your organization spends on self-paced e-learning, set up learners for success by flipping the script. Let them know you encourage struggling and that you aren’t judging them based on quiz scores. Give them time to reflect and explore problems before handing them solutions so that they begin to relish the process of learning.

Take your training one step further by intentionally designing courses and activities that use effective learning strategies. It may take more effect than pushing out a stand-alone e-learning course, but the reframe doesn’t require a big budget, and the results will be more than worth it.

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