The most recent eLearning Guild research report, Let Me Google That For You (LMGTFY), offers quick answers to some questions from our community. They are mostly questions that lend themselves more to quick web searches rather than a deep dive into academic literature or the sort of thing we would survey our community about. The report is essentially a potpourri covering instructional design terms, academic research on effectiveness of approaches, even number of mobile phones in use. One question I wanted to elaborate on a bit: “Which instructional strategies are most effective?”

For those newer to this business my best “nuts and bolts” advice is to visit Will Thalheimer’s 2017 review of eLearning effectiveness in which he highlights several strategies as “best”. These include:

Spaced learning: Offering repetitions of material and retrieval practice over time. This is especially good for shoring up long-term recall. As Thalheimer has noted, this supports understanding of learning as an ongoing process rather than the result of a single event.

Retrieval practice asks learners to pull past learning from memory. Basic quizzing techniques—matching, true/false, etc.—can help, as can more action-oriented approaches such as case studies, simulations, scenarios, and discussion. These can be especially effective when offered as spaced experiences rather than as a one-off exercise, and bolstered by the addition of meaningful feedback.

Feedback is especially effective when used in response to misconceptions and incorrect answers—but not just with “try again” suggestions that mostly just encourage guessing. And it’s not valuable as a warm and fuzzy reinforcer. See Thalheimer’s work on this, including research citations, and see this past Nuts and Bolts column for a bit more on feedback.

Authentic decision-making & tasks. Literature lately has tangled up the words “authentic” (realistic, practical, real-world) with the idea of “authenticity” (based on deep introspection and acting in ways true to oneself). While the latter is a noble goal, in this context we mostly define it as offering learners realistic practice tasks and decisions. This means, for instance, giving cases that require decision-making and scenarios that offer credible choices and consequences. Such exercises requiring application of material support learning more than quick tests of, for example, basic recall will.

Richard Mayer has done a good deal of research on effective use of multimedia in particular. His research-based principles of multimedia learning offers guidance on creating and deploying particular types of instructional materials. On a personal note: In my life as a designer and often the point person in fielding management requests for development of eLearning courses, I found Mayer’s work particularly useful in explaining, for instance, why we didn’t want to narrate every word in a course or why we didn’t necessarily want things like images and their labels offered in neat margin-justified layouts. Much of Mayer’s work is available online and his book with Ruth Clark, eLearning and the Science of Instruction, offers the principles in conjunction with detailed examples.

Finally, Patti Shank has been working with the research on designing memorable instruction. Her book Manage Memory for Deeper Learning is a useful resource, offering 21 tactics for supporting memory while learning. Tips range from making material more accessible to eliminating unnecessary effort and the use of schemas for deeper understanding.

This is only an overview of the considerable literature on this topic, so do look around for other sources. One more thing: Another question asked related to the effectiveness of eLearning. It’s a loaded, complicated question, but briefly: eLearning can be very effective, but not if it’s just a word-heavy, click-and-read offering. It’s by leveraging the strategies we know are effective—spacing practice, providing realistic practice and opportunities for decision-making, offering useful feedback, employing what we know to be good techniques for offering material and making it memorable—that makes for a solid, effective learning experience.