Elephants never forget, but humans do! — Part one: 24 hour memory

Whilst attending the Learning Technologies Show in January, one particular statement grabbed my attention. According to Dr. Itiel, former senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Southampton, on average, 70-80% of information that people “learn”, they will forget after 24 hours. So, for all of us who create learning courses, we really do have a tough job on our hands to ensure that participants remember the learning points for longer than a day!

In particular, this made me consider the assessments our clients often request at the end of an e-learning course. If we are assessing the participants on how much they have learnt then we should be aware that testing them within 24 hours of completing the course perhaps doesn’t give a fair representation of this. If someone achieves 90% on the assessment part at the end of a data protection course then we hail that as an achievement; that employee now knows how to handle data correctly! But, for how long? What if, 24 hours later, they are confronted with a data protection situation; will they remember what to do? If they’re lucky, the issue they face will draw from the 20-30% of learning they still remember.

But, before we all go and change our careers, let’s not forget that there are so many factors which influence why people “learn” or remember. For example, age, ability, cognitive load, relevance of the material and motivation for taking the course could all play a part. Dr Itiel’s point was that, as people who design learning, we just need to be aware of these factors and use them to our advantage. He carried out an experiment regarding the impact of the layout and structure of an e-learning course on learners’ information retention. He used three different layouts experimenting with the display of the information and the degree of control the learner had over the course navigation and their learning path. He tested participants immediately after taking the course and then two weeks later. His results found that immediately after the course there was no real difference between the layouts as to how much information was remembered. Two weeks later, however, learners remembered the most from the linear format with no user-control over the learning path or navigation. His theory behind this was related to cognitive load, perhaps the more you are thinking about how to navigate through the course, the less brain power you have available to absorb the learning from the course.

This is just one small investigation into one of the influencing factors on learning and retention, and Dr Itiel is still working on researching this topic in more detail. Obviously there are no clear-cut answers or set formats to which a course should adhere, but for the moment let’s just be aware of the impact of these factors when designing our courses. Next month in part two, I’ll take a look at the use of videos in e-learning courses and their effect on information retention and learning.

For more information on Dr Itiel’s studies please visit: http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/id/train.html

About the author

Jennifer Wrigley - Instructional designer