E-learning design: Basic or blockbuster?
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E-learning design: Basic or blockbuster?

Imagine you could give your learners slick, fast-paced e-learning modules that look like they came straight out of a Hollywood studio. Wouldn’t it be great to grab their attention, wow them with stunning visuals and leave them wanting more?

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently explored how videos with flashy production value affect viewers’ knowledge retention. It turns out that viewers really enjoy the videos while they’re watching them – but remember very little once they’re over.

The research

Participants were asked to watch a series of commercials and public service announcements promoting safe sex while researchers monitored their brain activity. The commercials were divided into two groups based on visual style.

One group of videos presented its message simply and directly without bells and whistles or special effects. The second group attempted to grab viewers’ attention through rapid pacing, intense graphics, special effects and/or loud music.

When researchers looked at participants’ brain activity, they saw that the slick videos were successful in one sense: They captured viewers’ attention and the visual center of their brains lit up.

But there was a problem.

The commercials contained so much visual detail that viewers were overstimulated and couldn’t effectively process all the information.

Conversely, the simpler videos did not dramatically light up viewers’ visual centers; instead, they activated the area of the brain associated with memory. As a result, subjects were able to encode the information into their long-term memory.

On a follow-up test three weeks later, subjects scored significantly higher on questions about the simply designed videos. The attention-grabbing videos got subjects to sit up and take notice, but they remembered far less of the content.


Present your message simply. With all of the technology at our disposal, it’s tempting for trainers and learning professionals to turn to the flashiest or most striking visual presentation. But doing so runs the risk of sacrificing knowledge retention for entertainment.

As the research stated, “the strategy of capturing attention, i.e. ‘buying the eyeballs,’ may come at the expense of learning the content and therefore the message” of the video.

Whether you’re delivering a classroom presentation or an e-learning module, choosing clear, uncomplicated graphics to support your content will ensure that learners won’t become overloaded.

Consider your learners’ limitations. Learners’ brains have a limited capacity – and not just for visual information. Presenting too much content in one session can also overwhelm trainees.

To increase retention, consider limiting your training sessions’ content and their duration. Delivering new material in smaller, shorter bites will help learners absorb and retain the key information.

Make your content the star. If you’re concerned about keeping hold of learners’ attention, employ techniques that have been proven to draw people in. Make it meaningful through storytelling, case studies and social learning. These tools get trainees to see the real-world implications and motivate them to invest in the learning process.

Seelig, D., et al. (2014). Low message sensation health promotion videos are better remembered and activate areas of the brain associated with memory encoding. PLoS ONE, 9(11): e113256. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113256

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