Study: Where e-learning works best – and where it may need a little help
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Study: Where e-learning works best – and where it may need a little help

The power of e-learning is clear. But is tech-based learning a one-size-fits-all solution, or are there instances where your trainees could benefit from the inclusion of some low-tech learning?

Researchers from Dartmouth College and Carnegie Mellon University conducted a series of experiments to shed some light on this question. The answer: It depends on whether you’re training your learners on concrete skills or abstract ones.

The research

In one of the studies, each subject was given the same short story to read. Half read a physical printout of the story while the other half read the story on a digital device.

After the reading, both groups were given a pop quiz on what they had read. In keeping with their reading medium, the print group was asked to complete a hard copy of the quiz with a pencil while the digital group took the quiz online on their device.

The results were revealing. On quiz questions that relied on remembering concrete information, the tech-based learners scored 16 percent higher than the print group. But on questions that tested abstract or conceptual knowledge, the print group came out on top, scoring 15 percent higher than the e-learners.

Similar results were found in several other studies conducted by the same research team.


Many learning professionals would likely want to impart both concrete information and a larger conceptual understanding of the subject matter to their learners. So should trainers abandon e-learning when attempting to teach abstract concepts? The researchers don’t think so.

“We can design to overcome the tendencies — or deficits — inherent in digital devices,” argues Mary Flannigan, co-lead researcher of the study. The “design” she mentions is important for learning professionals to note.

The study argues that we have different “construal levels” — or levels of concrete understanding versus abstract understanding — when we absorb information from a digital device as compared to a regular old piece of paper. And if that’s the case, learning professionals need to formulate a training strategy with our cognitive quirks in mind.

Ultimately, trainers don’t need to abandon digital platforms for pen and paper when teaching abstract concepts. They simply need to design follow-up activities accordingly, ensuring that abstract concepts get the attention and the reinforcement they deserve.


Here are some recommendations for follow-up activities to make sure your abstract concepts stick – whether or not you’re using e-learning.

Peer discussions. Tech-based learning is an effective and efficient way to introduce new information and concepts. But your learners won’t transition that information into behavior change without revisiting the information and actively engaging with it.

A great way to facilitate that crucial piece of the learning process is to have your learners unplug and discuss training topics together as a group. They can share and fill in learning gaps, debate ideas and ultimately leave with an improved and more holistic understanding of the subject matter.

Learning journals. After each training experience, consider asking your learners to write down their thoughts about what they’ve learned and how they plan to incorporate it into their work routine. You can give them prompts to respond to, or allow them to write freely.

Writing down their own personal understandings and experiences will nudge learners to think more deeply and abstractly about the subject matter and their own learning process. And the act of writing these thoughts and ideas down can have a powerful affect on both understanding and subsequent goal achievement.

One-on-one coaching. If a learner is having difficulty seeing a new concept in the larger context, set up some one-on-one coaching where you or a more experienced peer can help them to see the bigger picture. Not only will their understanding of the new concept improve, but the proper context will help them to implement the concept appropriately and successfully.


Kaufman, G. and Flanagan, M. (2016). High-low split: Divergent cognitive construal levels triggered by digital and non-digital platforms. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. New York, NY: ACM. doi:

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