eLearning Strategies to Support Memory Recall


At the university where I worked for eight years, occasionally I observed non-traditional students in class well into the evening, struggling to stay alert, struggling to soak it in, trying to make something better for themselves. Several years earlier, I watched a new employee at a software company resign in utter defeat. Nothing he had studied before in terms of software language, database, and mathematics prepared him for a new domain of knowledge.  It was all foreign, and it was disheartening, and it was delivered in a manner that was all too much.

Late evening classes or eight-hour training days push more and more information at the learners, until they literally break down, quit, or somehow miraculously hang on to fight another day.

The tremendous tax on learners is not unusual in either the corporate or the academic environment.  Both schools and companies place a heavy demand on the learner’s ability to remember things. 

The constraints of human memory!  Our lack of understanding of memory would be almost humorous if it weren’t for the wasted effort of students and employees alike.  In this vacuum of understanding, myths and falsehoods and deceptive practices have filled in.   Fortunately we have people like Will Thalheimer (The Debunker Club : Debunking Resources – The Debunker Club) and the authors of The Urban Myths of Learning and Education to help set us straight.

The Forgetting Curve

What we do know, and what research supports, is that we are wired to forget.  Many of us cite Herman Ebbinghaus’ ‘Forgetting Curve’.  The forgetting curve is real and, in some cases, very steep depending on a number of factors, but as Dr. Thalheimer points out, you just can’t put a number on it.  You can’t say with any certainty, for example, that learners will forget 70% of what they have learned within a day. 

Let’s consider the forgetting curve just for a moment, and then we’ll turn to eLearning.

The forgetting curve was the outcome of research done in the late 1800s by Herman Ebbinghaus.  He scientifically observed his own recall of nonsense syllables.  He made up lists of three-letter nonsense words and committed them to memory.  Once he successfully memorized 100% of a list, he attempted to recall the list.  The forgetting curve shows that he forgot 42% of the words within 20 minutes.  After a day he retained only 33% of this list of nonsense.

Hermann Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve

We know that people forget, perhaps at disheartening rates, but the rate of forgetfulness is based on dozens of factors.  Are these new employees who are being introduced to something new to them, or are they seasoned employees?  Do they have any prior knowledge that will help them organize new information?  Are they paying attention or are they distracted?  Are they motivated to learn – intrinsically or with an external reward?  Is there a threat if they don’t learn?  Is there too much of a threat that inhibits their learning?  Are they just trying to earn CPE credit?  Are they taught how to recall the information in the right place at the right time for the right reason?  Is the material difficult?  Are they asked to recall the information? How many times?

Try placing those variables in a formula.  It’s impossible. 

We know that the forgetting curve is real.  It has been replicated recently (Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve (nih.gov)) and it will accurately mirror our students’ or employees’ rate of forgetfulness if we do not:

  • Help learners recall prior knowledge
  • Help learners organize new knowledge
  • Provide storage and retrieval cues that will help them use the information in the right context
  • Practice retrieval of the new knowledge
  • Space the retrieval over time.
  • Integrate the new knowledge with other knowledge
  • Apply the new knowledge before forgetting

This is where eLearning plays a role. Oftentimes, trainers are busy workers or busy teachers who can’t address deficits in prior knowledge, for example, or even assess prior knowledge, or fit spaced practice or simulated application into their training.

That is where I think eLearning can shine. 

I know, I know.  I’m an eLearning developer and an eLearning authoring toolmaker.  But there are reasons why I chose this field.  This is one of them.

The design of eLearning experiences can help improve the training experience, even if the latter is traditional face-to-face teaching.  As I’ve observed, many people dread eLearning because of the page-turner drudgery they’ve been subjected to.  Medical workers, lawyers, and accountants, and anyone with continuing education demands, have had too many bad self-study experiences.   In my current company, group-live (face-to-face) instruction is preferred over eLearning. That doesn’t, however, eliminate the option of eLearning. As a pre-training preparation or a post-training reinforcement and application, eLearning can still play a role.

Against this backdrop, here are some strategies or designs that can help:

Plan the training or academic curriculum to include pre-training activities and post-training reinforcements.  Make room for recalling prior knowledge in the training or lesson plans of future courses.

Flip the training.  That means, use eLearning (or self-studies) to present the content and use face-to-face training time to observe student performance and provide feedback. Data from 317 studies shows that flipped classroom interventions produced positive gains across all three learning domains (To Flip or Not to Flip? A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Flipped Learning in Higher Education – Carrie A. Bredow, Patricia V. Roehling, Alexandra J. Knorp, Andrea M. Sweet, 2021 (sagepub.com))


Let the post-training assessments for the last course or training session be the pre-training assignments for the new thing — not as assessments, but as highly scaffolded activities with prompts and hints and feedback and textbook references and video helps and whatever.  The point is to help recall and to prepare learners for what lies ahead. 

Design activities that help learners recall vocabulary, basic concepts, laws, principles and procedures.  Activities can help prompt that recall and reduce the cognitive load of the new stuff.  If an accounting teacher makes references to cash or accrual accounting, do you want students struggling to recall the terms or do you want them paying attention to the new information?  It’s hard for them to do both.

Use flashcards, crosswords, matching, categorization, and other activities.  They’re not as sophisticated as things I’ve discussed in past posts, but they can play a useful role in helping recall.

Embed a video or a short Powtoon presentation.

Use quizzes with circular queues (missed questions get repeated) or variable interval queues (missed questions get repeated at spaced intervals).

Make it fun.  Gamify it.


All of the pre-training suggestions apply to post-training as well.  But you can do even more.

Interactive Storyboards

This strategy walks the learner through the presented content in a storyboard fashion.  In the interactive storyboard, however, the learner must fill in the missing pieces. Recently our HR department presented on employee feedback and the different roles that in-charges, supervisors and talent advisors play in giving feedback to accountants and auditors.  She talked about a process that included feedback in review notes, one-on-one meetings with supervisors, and regular meetings with talent advisors.  The post-training activity can follow along in the life of an accountant but leave blanks for the learner to fill or questions for the learner to answer. It causes the learner to retrieve important elements of the presentation and become an active participant in reconstructing the information. When the learner gets it wrong, that’s an opportunity for feedback!

An interactive Storyboard, created with the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

An added benefit to the activity is that we can see how learners experienced the post-training activity through the xAPI statements that the (CMI5-conformant) activity generated.  In the following screenshot from the Learner Record Store, we can see that this employee missed the point that there is a connection between one-on-one meetings and talent development meetings.  We also see that this employee did hit the results page with a decent score the first time around.  The employee satisfied the requirements of the assignable unit (AU) and completed the course. That tells us a lot.  If we were to analyze all of the items that employees missed, we could either improve the presentation or improve the questions.

xAPI statements, generated by an activity authored in LodeStar

Embedded Discussions

Higher education instructors often invite students to discuss topics online after a presentation.  There is a reason for this. At the most elemental level, it forces recall of the presentation. At a higher level, it generates new knowledge as students hear differing perspectives.

In my time in higher ed, I’ve seen this done well and I’ve seen it done poorly.  My poster child for doing it right was a marketing instructor who simulated product advertising pitches in a discussion forum.  My hunch is that online discussion in corporate training environments is rarer.  To my point, our corporate Learning Management System (LMS) doesn’t even offer a discussion board. 

The following screenshot depicts an activity prototype with an embedded discussion board.  For this prototype, we used Tribe from Tribe | A Customizable Community Platform.   Tribe allows you to create and embed your discussion board.   (I’m not necessarily endorsing Tribe.) The strategy is to refresh employees on the fundamental principles of giving and receiving feedback and then ask them to discuss what works for them.

The key idea is to immerse learners in the content with enough information to prompt their recall of the training.  Then we invite them to share their insights or strategies with others.  They don’t need to leave the activity and log in to another service.  They can share their thoughts right there and then. 

This is an important idea in a general strategy that we’ve been working out called 3Di.  That means delivery of interactive content, discussion, and then decision.  Students apply what they have both learned and discussed to make a decision. 

A discussion forum embedded in an eLearning activity

Staged Journals

We first developed this strategy for a literature teacher.  She taught students how to be analytical of fairy tales.  She instructed them on the Propp analysis based on the work of Vladimir Propp.  In the staged journal technique, students would be presented with one step or stage of the analysis.  They would complete the step and go on to the next.  In the end, they had a journal that was compiled of all the steps.

The screenshot below depicts an employee who types in his greatest difficulty when asked to give a subordinate corrective feedback.  The learner brainstorms difficulties, and then brainstorms remedies. 

Here is an excerpt from a journal that compiles it all together in a feedback summary.

A compiled journal


Face-to-face instruction may have its supporters, but even this delivery type should include pre-training and post-training eLearning activities.  We know from research and from our own surveys that students and employees forget too much of what we teach.  The amount and rate of forgetfulness may not precisely follow Ebbinghaus’ curve but unless we address forgetfulness, students won’t achieve the desired outcomes of the training. 

More in-depth activities might include decision-making scenarios and simulations.  I’ve written about those in past articles but, in this post, I have featured activities that can be quickly and easily generated.  All three activities represent strategies that can help in the reflection and recall of training.   


Video Scenario Instructional Design Pattern


I am about to embark on an interesting inquiry – and I hope you’ll join me occasionally.

I’ve recently been inspired by Andy Weir and his novel “The Martian”. According to an interview on National Public Radio, Weir crowdsourced the scientific facts of his novel. He posted his book one chapter at time on his website, got feedback and, for the most part, shaped the scientific narrative through feedback from his followers. (He deliberately used the fake science of the Martian sandstorm to maroon the main character but, after that, the book purportedly holds true to the laws of physics, chemistry, botany, and other sciences. It is an interesting book, if you can get past the expletives.)

In a somewhat similar way, I hope to crowdsource a compilation of instructional strategies and design patterns for online learning. (You may think not quite as exciting as being marooned on Mars — but I think otherwise.)  I want feedback on what works and what doesn’t work in online content-to-student interactions. I can make some educated guesses based on my own readings, research and experience – but I really want to hear from you and others in our field. I want to test drive some ideas. I want to stop marooning instructors in the 21st century without tools to survive.

This is certainly a contribution that doctoral students in instructional technology can make to the field of online learning.   I would love to see quantitative and qualitative analyses of the use of specific design patterns, much in the same way that Richard Mayer’s primary research led to his principles of multimedia learning.

This will be a playful experiment. I will dust off some time-honored designs and strategies and try them out. I will also get my inspiration from new sources and try out new patterns. For some of the patterns, I won’t know from experience whether or not they will work. Feedback from instructors, students and online learning practitioners will help refine the patterns, accept or discard them.

I make a distinction between instructional strategies and instructional design patterns – which may, in the end, not be a particularly helpful one. For now, strategies relate to simple things like techniques to help engage students. For example in our university’s Teaching Online Institute, I display a spiral and ask participants how the spiral relates to the Fibonacci sequence. Participants think about it for a minute and then I reveal the spiral with the numbers superimposed (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…). It is either an affirming moment or an ‘aha’ experience. Reveals are a simple strategy. Not too complicated. There are hundreds of strategies like this one. Pre-training on a topic or the simple underlining of key words — or as Richard Mayer calls it, signaling — are other examples of simple strategies.

An instructional design pattern is more involved. It is not one technique but a fairly defined sequence of activities designed to engage the student. Instructors can’t just use an instructional design pattern ad hoc; they have to plan carefully. My classic example is the WebQuest from Bernie Dodge. It has a well-defined pattern that I have written about in the past, which is made up of an introduction, a statement of task, a description of the process by which students will complete the task, a set of links that will serve as helpful resources, and a statement of how students will be evaluated. It is based on an inquiry learning approach that is so useful in online instruction.

Another example might be the simulated interview. I’ll write about this in the future, but in a nutshell it involves a simulated dialog between the student and an on-screen character in some sort of scenario. The character says something through audio or a speech bubble and the student responds by selecting one of several options of dialog. We used this pattern to rehearse faculty on an approach to integrated design. The faculty member is immersed in a scenario, is evaluated on her choices and then assigned points and given feedback. As you can see, this is not just a simple strategy or technique; it is a whole structure that involves choices, coaching, visual performance indicators and so forth.

In the next few months we’ll uncover and discover strategies and designs that promote student engagement with online learning. (‘Designs’ is my short form for instructional design pattern). As I’ve written I have some time-tested strategies and designs, but I am in search for more. I would love for you to provide feedback on those I propose and I want to hear your suggestions for new ones. My response to some of the suggestions will be to build activities from proposed patterns and test them on students. My antennae are up for patterns. I’m uncovering them everywhere.

A case in point: Recently, my wife and I traveled to Louisiana for a workshop sponsored by Southern University’s Science Math and Engineering Doctorate program. On the way, we stopped at Table Rock dam at the edge of the Ozarks. At the interpretive center there was a kiosk that challenged visitors to make a decision about water management. The kiosk presented a scenario that included the amount of rainfall and information on the capacity of the reservoirs in the flowage. I watched my wife deeply engaged by this kiosk. Eventually, we both reviewed the information, examined the map and discussed which options we would choose. She chose right; I chose wrong.

This reminded me of the interactive kiosks that I so much enjoyed as a young teen at the local science center. From Table Rock and my past experiences, I walked away with a proposed design pattern.

The following article explores this design pattern in detail and why it has the potential to engage students. In the future, I’ll skip the preamble. What follows is not only a description of a video scenario design pattern but a proposed structure on how to discuss it. Comment on both, please.

The Video Scenario Design Pattern

What’s the pattern?

Present students with information. Make it in the form of a problem solving scenario. Invoke an emotional response. Challenge students to review the information and a set of options and then select the option or options that are best. Play out the feedback in the form of video, assign points and provide textual feedback. Provide follow-up resources.

A screenshot of LodeStar Learning's video scenario page type.

A screenshot of LodeStar Learning’s video scenario page type found in the ActivityMaker template.

Why should it work?

Humans are fascinated by uncovering and discovering. They are engaged when they must think about and manipulate things and get immediate feedback.

Sivasailam Thiagarajan ,affectionately known as Thiagi, offers an explanation borrowed from Dr. Seymour Epstein, University of Massachusetts.

Seymour Epstein suggests that “we have an experiential mind and a rational mind. Our experiential mind learns directly, thinks quickly, pays attention to the outcome, and forgets slowly. Our rational mind learns indirectly, thinks deliberately, pays attention to the process, and forgets rapidly. Epstein’s contention is that you need both your minds. Games and interactive strategies appeal directly to the experiential mind. When combined with debriefing discussions, they provide a powerfully balanced approach to whole-brain learning.”

The Video Scenario Design appeals directly to the experiential mind. We also anticipate other laws in play. Thiagi, in his talks and in his writings, lists seven laws. Some of these have shaped our design pattern.

  • Law of Reinforcement: Participants learn to repeat behaviors that are rewarded.
  • Law of Emotional Learning: Events that are accompanied by intense emotions result in long-lasting learning.
  • Law of Active Learning: Active responding produces more effective learning than passive listening or reading.
  • Law of Practice and Feedback: Learners cannot master skills without repeated practice and relevant feedback.
  • Law of Previous Experience: New learning should be linked to (and build upon) the experiences of the learner.
  • Law of Individual Differences: Different people learn in different ways.
  • Law of Relevance: Effective learning is relevant to the learner’s life and work.

These laws square with my own experience and so I cite them. You can judge for yourself which laws are in play in the video scenario examples.

Another important dynamic relates to Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. The artful use of this effect is an important strategy in the designer’s tool bag.

Briefly paraphrased, cognitive dissonance is the students’ attempt to achieve consistency between new information and what they know to be true. Students who experience inconsistency (dissonance) become uncomfortable and are motivated to try to reduce their discomfort.

Our first example of a video scenario leverages the effect of cognitive dissonance, as well.

How do I create it?

Start with a quick overview presented in text form or video. Make this brief. Launch as quickly as possibly into the video segment that will remind the student why she/he should care about the topic. In our demonstration, we played a segment from Tom Brokaw’s presentation on Global Warming. Pick a credible source and get the student emotionally involved in the subject.

Add a slide (or page) that makes it clear how the student will be evaluated. In our video scenario, each option is worth points. Good options are worth more than bad options. In our scenario, we followed an independent consulting firm’s ranking of alternative energy sources. Our top choice was assigned 12 points. The student would earn 12 points if s/he chose that option on the first try. 6 points on the second try, and so on. If a student simply chose each option from left to right, he would earn less than 50% of the available points. The total available points are 20. A student earns 20 if s/he makes good choices as early as possible.

Each option is followed by a video. The video sometimes either explicitly or implicitly reveals the merit of the choice. Each option is also coupled with explicit feedback that also states the number of points the student has accumulated.

By this time, we hope we have maintained the student’s interest and offer additional videos.


A screenshot of LodeStar Learning's Video Scenario page type.

A screenshot of LodeStar Learning’s Video Scenario page type.

Energy Video Scenario Challenge


In our second example, we demonstrate how the video scenario can be applied in different way. We challenge students to pick combinations of substances that lead to chemical reactions. Bad choices severely reduce points. Give it a try.

Chemical Reactions



One important criteria for instructional design patterns is that they are easy for instructors to use. The designs that we choose to discuss are those that can be implemented with a variety of tools such as Adobe Captivate, Allen Learning’s ZebraZapps, Articulate StoryLine or whatever tool supports the creation and use of templates, including our tool, the LodeStar eLearning Authoring tool. Templates are important because without them the task of implementing an instructional design pattern for instructors is too daunting.

When I served as an instructional designer on projects paid for by Fortune 500 corporations, budgets and project schedules were fairly healthy. In contrast, instructors have neither money nor the time. Templates enable them to build sophisticated interactions without programming knowledge and enable faculty to focus on the content and needs of their students.

Toward that end, LodeStar Learning has added the Video Scenario page to the ActivityMaker template to make it easy for instructors to implement all or some aspects of the video scenario design. This page type is available in LodeStar 7.2 build 20 +.

We want to hear from you.