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Using Rich Stimuli in eLearning Courses

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Richness of stimuli is one of the most important ideas from John Medina’s book Brain Rules.  The book discusses the principles which determine how our minds work, and one of the key insights from the most recent neuroscience is that the richer a given stimulus is, the easier it will be for someone to remember.  

Let me give you an example.  Take the series of numbers 31415926579358979, which are the first 17 digits of the irrational number Pi. Now just remembering this series of numbers by itself is difficult unless you have practiced previously, or perhaps you are one of the lucky few with a perfect memory. But for us average mortals, those 17 numbers are just a long string of symbols, easily forgotten after only a few minutes.  

However, if as you read through the series of numbers you sing the numbers to yourself with a simple tune it becomes much easier to remember.  Now if you read through these numbers while singing the tune to yourself and baking a pie, smelling the baking crust and going through the motions, these numbers would suddenly be a whole lot easier to recall.

The more senses which are engaged, the more detailed the context in which the information is conveyed, and the easier it will be to recall the information at a later date. This is one of the reasons that video training is so effective. Watching a video engages the learner with sound and visuals at the same time, which makes even a not so good video compelling.  Anyone who has ever tried to read a book in the same room as a tv showing a reality show can attest that even if you do not care about what is being shown on the tv, it is difficult not to watch.

It should come as no surprise then that videos form the base of any LearnBIG course.  Our goal is to create learning you do not want to look away from, and videos are a key tool in that process. Creating a richer experience is one of the reasons a LearnBIG course does not include just videos but also intelligent interactions at a consistent frequency throughout the courses. Interactions layered on top of video create an extra rich neural stimulus because the action taken by the learner adds an extra layer to the stimuli they are receiving and makes the information easier to recall.

An added benefit of creating such stimuli-rich learning material is that it allows us to appeal to multiple different learning styles all at the same time.  Learning styles are commonly thought of as the preferred medium by which a learner wants to acquire new knowledge, such as by listening, watching, or doing.  Videos combined with interactive content appeal to each of these styles, which means that there is a little something for everyone baked into a LearnBIG course.

But in the end, richness of stimuli is just one piece of the puzzle in retaining and recalling information.  It is an important piece to be sure, but it cannot do the job on its own.  Other factors like repetition, engagement, and focus all play into how successful someone is at learning a new piece of information, and for an eLearning experience to be successful, all these pieces need the proper attention.