Despite the growing popularity of e-learning among adult learners, research shows that trainees still report a high incidence of mind wandering and disengagement when watching modules.

So while users may prefer to get their information online, how much of it is actually sticking?

A recent study suggests an unlikely solution to the problem of zoned-out learners: More tests. Lots more.

The research

Researchers from Harvard and Dartmouth wanted to explore solutions for holding learners’ attention during an e-learning course.

In the study, they created a 21-minute module and divided participants into two groups. Both groups were told there would be a final test after they completed the video.

Group One watched the module straight through without any interruptions, followed by the test.

For Group Two, the module was divided into four parts, each roughly five minutes long. After each section, participants were given a short online quiz on the information they had just learned. Then they took the final test.

Group Two scored a full 25 points higher on the final test – not entirely shocking since they had already taken several quizzes on the content. But more importantly for the researchers, Group Two reported being much more focused on the module. They also took significantly more notes than Group One, which the researchers said was a sign of the participants’ engagement in the learning process.

The researchers concluded that “testing can be used to help students sustain attention to content in a manner that discourages task-irrelevant (mind wandering) and encourages task-relevant (note taking) activities, and hence improves learning.”

New school meets old school

Using quizzes to keep learners engaged in e-learning may be the future. But it’s an old school technique.

Think back to high school, where you likely engaged in some mind wandering from time to time. Do you remember teachers recognizing that far-away look in your eyes and calling on you for an answer? Chances are, you got it wrong and felt foolish for a moment. But what happened next? You were jolted back into the discussion in the classroom and paid attention for the rest of class.

Online quizzes have the same power to keep learners honest. When you know you’re going to be quizzed on something in five minutes, you pay attention. You take notes. You stay engaged.


Don’t let learners “lean back” for too long. Whether you’re deploying e-learning or instructor-led training, don’t allow learners to just sit there for long stretches. If you do, you run the risk of them tuning out. Instead, get trainees involved in the learning process by asking questions and conducting exercises that force them to participate. The study suggests that including an activity every five minutes or so will do the trick.

Constantly assess. Assessments aren’t just for the end of a training session. Use assessments constantly to make sure learners are on track and focused on the topic at hand. These don’t have to be quizzes – they can be role-plays, group discussions or anything that gets learners engaged with the content.

Szpunar, K. K., et al. (2013). Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures. Proceeding of the Natural Academy of Sciences, 110(16), 6313-6317.

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