How can you prove learning in eLearning?


The reason eLearning exists is because there is a learning need.

Despite that first sentence being an obvious statement to most people, it is surprising how many people undertake what I like to call eIrony rather than eLearning. It is easy for eLearning to turn into a way of merely presenting information to large groups of people, which ironically, often leads to no learning what so ever.


But what do we mean by ‘learning’ anyway? How can you define if someone has ‘learned’ rather than just ‘read’ or ‘listened’ or ‘been shown’ something?

I find many definitions of learning unsatisfactory, but I liked this definition at Business Dictionary.

Learning: Measurable and relatively permanent change in behaviour through experience, instruction, or study.

The emphasis on change in behaviour is interesting, because behaviour can be observed and gives an obvious demonstration of change.

I want to explore how to prove learning in eLearning. A change in behaviour could be one way to prove this.

For example, imagine a small business with a finance team. This team has been dealing with telephone queries in various ways, some members of the team better than others. The finance manager decides that they want to streamline and standardise the way in which telephone queries are dealt with. An eLearning course is designed to teach all members of the team the correct way to deal with telephone queries. A month later, after a review which includes recording some of the calls, it is clear that the finance team have changed their behaviour. All calls are answered in a standardised way.

This scenario proves that the team have learnt from the eLearning course and have changed their behaviour. We would consider this eLearning a success – it got the required results and improved the way calls were handled.


Knowledge as well as behaviour

But does all learning need to result in changed behaviour? Some learning could be for knowledge purposes rather than practical, behaviour-driven purposes. For example, a group of A-Level students must complete a module in the first year of their Psychology degree. The tutor decides to design an eLearning course for this short module. The LMS will record whether the students have completed this  module, and it will count towards their final mark for the year. The students might be tested on the content of this module in their end-of-year exam.

You could argue that the end-of-year exam will prove or disprove that the eLearning was a success. However, if they do poorly in the exam in questions relating to the eLearning, perhaps they have simply forgotten the content some weeks later. In this example, learning can also be defined as moving information from the short term memory to the long term memory. The students might remember it immediately after the eLearning, but how long will they retain it for?

What we want as eLearning developers is to know how we can make sure that learning takes place rather than just reading, doing and listening.

Below I’ve explored some ideas for moving towards proving that learning has taken place.


Test the learner with quiz questions

A common way to check for learning is to ask questions along the way or at the end of an eLearning course.

Pros: It forces the learner to interact and engage with the content in order to answer questions. The learner is much more likely to pay attention to the content if they know that they will be asked questions throughout or at the end of the course.

Cons: Knowledge checks and quizzes are often multiple choice questions. This means that the learner can guess the answers. If a learner answers questions incorrectly, there is often no consequence to this, or the learner is able to try the quiz again until they pick the correct answer. If a learner answers incorrectly, they are often given the correct answer in the feedback, which they could easily skip over.

Instead: If they answer a multiple choice question incorrectly, give them information to let them know why their answer is incorrect. Give the correct information in a way which summarises it for them or shows them the information visually. Record which areas of the course were their strongest (where they got quiz answers correct) and which were their weakest (where they got quiz answers incorrect) and ask them to revisit the parts where they were weak.


Simple interactive games (drag and drop, matching) with correct and incorrect answers

Get the learner to match different items together, or other similar activity. If they do this correctly, it will demonstrate that they understand the information and how it relates.

Pros: Very interactive and completely independent activity. It gives the learner a chance to look at information in a summarised form and complete a task. The learner can look at how different information within the module relates to each other.

Cons: As with the quizzes, the learner can guess the answers. It is unlikely that there will be consequences in the eLearning if they get the answers wrong. Information which is dragged and dropped is often just words and phrases, without any symbolic meaning or illustration to show what it relates to. Usually the learner is allowed multiple tries, which increases the chances of guessing the answers, rather than requiring learnt information to complete the task.

Instead: Make these activities meaningful. Give the learner symbols to associate with the information in the module, and then use them again in this activity. Ask them to look at words and then match the definitions. Don’t use long descriptions as part of the matched options. When the learner answers incorrectly, give them the correct answer with explanation, rather than just the answer. If they don’t complete this activity correctly, have another activity available which gives more of an overview of what they needed to know.


Scenarios with correct and incorrect options

Scenarios are always a good way to make information relatable to learners. Simply presenting them with pages of text and the odd graphic doesn’t make the information ‘real’. For example, you want a learner to know how to conduct themselves in meetings. You could simply give them a list of bullet points, and then ask them a question about it later. However, a list of bullet points would rely on the learner memorising these, rather than experiencing a relatable scenario.

Pros: Taking a learner on a journey through a scenario which gives them options forces them to engage. You could even ask the learner to pick which scenario they would like to undertake depending on their job role or their relevant experience. This will lead to a bespoke experience for each learner.

Cons: Learners could complete a scenario, but fail to see the relevance. Some may wish to simply be presented with the information to save time rather than look for it within a scenario. They may get frustrated if they continually go down the wrong path which leads to the ‘wrong’ answer. It may be difficult for them to learn the correct way if they have never been told, and are simply left to explore the scenario on their own with no previous information.

Instead: Keep scenarios simple and not too long. Very long scenarios may be fun, but can lose their relevance. Always keep in mind the original purpose of the scenario, and don’t send it off on a tangent. Once the scenario is complete, summarise for the learner what the purpose of the scenario was an how it relates to learning outcomes. Repeat the points of the scenario afterwards to ensure that the learner understood what it was about.


Repetition and other memory-forming techniques

As mentioned earlier, converting information from the short term memory to the long term memory is a large part of learning. Repetition is a good way of doing this. If the learner is only presented with something once, it is likely to get lost within the rest of the information. If it is emphasised, incorporated into an activity, emphasised again, and then summarised, this will encourage retention. Other memory forming techniques can include symbolism (giving information an associated image, symbol or icon which is repeated later in the course) and other visuals rather than simply relying on text or words.

Pros: These technique are based on widely accepted psychological theories. Repeating the information gives the learner plenty of chances to retain it. Repetition is also likely to give the information more meaning, particularly if it is applied to different scenarios or ideas. Symbolism adds an associated image to information, and learners are more likely to remember images than text.

Cons: Simply repeating information won’t necessarily make it relevant to the learner. They might be able to recite it, but have they really learnt anything in the long term? Remembering information doesn’t guarantee that they will apply it in the right circumstances once the learning is complete.

Instead: Use repetition and symbolism amongst the other techniques above. These memory-forming techniques will definitely aid learning, but don’t necessarily prove it. Learning must be tested as well as achieved.

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