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Retention in eLearning

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The ultimate goal of reporting is to find a way to measure a user’s retention of the information they have learned in the course.  Now this is a particularly difficult and fraught question because it seems like an impossibility for a course which has a defined duration (say 10 minutes) to check whether a user has retained the information in a day, a week, or even longer.  And while it is certainly difficult, that does not make it impossible by any means.

Of course, if there is no direct follow up to the course after it has ended then there can not be an actual measure of retention once the course has closed.  This is one method of solving the problem, and could include short email quizzes every few days, employing a concept called spaced repetition, or even retaking the course at a later date to check for progress or retention.

However, in addition to these extra-course avenues, there are methods which can be applied purely within the confines of the course.  These methods take advantage of what we know about brain science and memory.  Specifically we know that a user will retain 75% of information they implement or apply immediately while only 10%-20% of what they learn from just reading and audio-visual stimuli.  It is for this reason that interactivity is such an important part of eLearning.  Part of the reason that applying information boosts retention such a large amount is that throughout the process of implementation the user has to constantly “re-remember” the information.  This process of re-remembering strengthens the neural pathways which encode the information, helping to cement it into the long-term memory.  

By combining this information with metrics, it is possible to create a theory by which we can measure the “strength” of the retention of a piece of information presented by the course.  By using the “Assess then Train” strategy, we can tell what information a user knew going into the course and what they learned, but we can also track how often they were asked to utilize a given piece of information and whether they did so correctly.  

This strategy has more to do with the interplay between instructional design and the concept of spaced repetition with actual metrics than just a single factor on its own.  But it is precisely this interplay which allows us to provide the kind of information that would otherwise be impossible to provide.  Each time a user successfully applies the information they are learning, the better their retention becomes, and therefore the course must offer them multiple opportunities to apply the information, which conveniently provides more data for the metrics to track their progress.  

At the end of the day there is no way to 100% ensure retention of information.  The human brain is perhaps the most complex of organisms, and its ability to preserve as well as forget sensations and information is both well understood, and not understood nearly well enough.  We can and must do everything in our power to increase and ensure retention of information, including employing rich stimuli, intelligent interactive content, with beautiful visuals at a steady frequency.  All these tactics brought together can be measured and offer a data driven picture which shows how likely it is that information will have been retained by the user.  

But in the end, the only way to truly retain information is to utilize it.  All users need to apply the information they are learning outside of the confines of their eLearning courses.  By making the information a part of their daily activity it will become indispensable, and so will never be forgotten.