What can eLearning designers pick up from medical school? (Besides, you know, how to be a doctor.)

It turns out there’s an effective med-school instructional method that you can easily adapted to soft-skills eLearning. And it’s proven to help learners retain important, complex information!

Hard skills vs. soft skills

Hard-skills learning, or algorithmic learning, is typically acquired through practice and application. Hard skills are abilities like using formulas in Excel or designing a web page with HTML. They’re learned by step-by-step instruction and retained by repeating them on the job.

Soft-skills, or heuristics, are more complex. Think fields like sales, leadership, and management where there isn’t a clear right way to do things. Heuristics involve rules of thumb, insights, and judgment calls. For example, there is no right way for a salesperson to close a sale. It depends on the buyer, the product, the selling relationship, and several other factors. But there are techniques and rules of thumb that can help salespeople determine the most successful approach and apply it.

Make soft skills stick

The aforementioned medical school study looked at heuristic learning to identify the instructional techniques that best foster long-term retention. The most important thing revealed from the research is this: soft-skills learning needs to be structured. A highly organized process helps learners retrieve the heuristics—the rules of thumb they’ve learned—in the moment of need.

The researchers also identified a medical school technique—the One-minute Preceptor—that is particularly effective for soft-skills instruction. The main purpose is to provide structured, meaningful, and timely feedback and reinforcement. Here’s how it can work in eLearning.

First, present a scenario or problem for the learner to review and consider. Construct a narrative story in the form of a brief video or module to engage your viewers. Then build in the following five steps.

1. Commitment. Require learners to state their belief: What is the best way to handle the problem the module presents? Ask your learners to commit by answering a multiple-choice question, writing their answer in a text field, or by uploading a video of them explaining their approach. (At this point, you’re not going to judge whether the belief is right or wrong; that’s something learners will discover for themselves through this process.) Example from med school: I believe the patient needs a course of antibiotics.

2. Probe. Ask follow-up questions that cause learners to elaborate and provide evidence for their decision. Why did they choose this approach? What alternatives did they consider? Why did they dismiss these alternatives? Example questions: What led you to this decision? Is there an effective alternative treatment or is this the sole treatment available?

3. Reinforce. Learners need to receive reinforcement and feedback on their responses. These comments should be timely and specific to each individual user. Feedback can be posted privately through your LMS or sent individually via email. The feedback should highlight the positive aspects of the learner’s responses. Example: Your diagnosis is accurate and your decision-making process was sound.

4. Guidance. Here’s where feedback can address any errors or important pieces of information that the learner omitted. The trainer’s comments shouldn’t just point out mistakes but offer ways of correcting them in the future. The more the feedback is individualized and action-oriented, the more value it will have. Example: There was one alternative treatment that you neglected to consider. Please review your notes from our last session to identify the treatment and why it’s effective.

5. Principle. Boil down the learning experience into a rule of thumb that the learner can take away—the core insight to deploy on the job. A memorable, clearly articulated principle will help learners recall and apply the knowledge in the moment of need. Feel free to also include any final thoughts that might provide further clarity or help the information stick. Example: Always consider alternatives first before prescribing antibiotics. Overprescribing antibiotics can be problematic for you and your patients.

When to use the One-minute Preceptor

Soft-skills training helps learners navigate situations where they must rely on their own judgment and rules of thumb to succeed. For example: A salesperson needs to handle a prospect’s price objections, or a manager has to conduct a difficult conversation with an underperforming employee.

Using the One-minute Preceptor’s structure has been proven to make heuristic learning stick. And the technique delivers quality feedback that will enrich learners’ understanding and help them apply their training when the chips are down.


Yelon, S. L., et al. “Transfer Over Time: Stories About Transfer Years After Training.” Performance Improvement Quarterly, 25(4). 2013.