Best Practices
“The aesthetic quality of a online course can improve the learning outcomes”

Recommendations to grab attention and engage students in e-learning courses. Suggestions to help virtual learners to retain what they learn. Tips for creating aesthetically pleasing courses that promote the interests of learners. How to persuade online students? An outstanding set of best practices in e-learning processes.

Interview with Karla Gutiérrez Trejos, Marketing Coordinator - Aura Interactiva


(@americalearning) What recommendations can you do to persuade the virtual students?

The secret recipe to a truly persuasive eLearning course is simple, at least in theory. Professionals in the fields of psychology, advertising, marketing and copywriting, have talked about some “rules” on how to persuade people. But all these rules lead us to two things: the human brain and human emotions. Note that these don’t just involve how people think and feel. They also include the subconscious mind and the unconscious mind of your learners.

This is why we've always encouraged eLearning professionals to read studies that unveil how the brain works and consider the role of emotions in eLearning. Persuasion starts in the mastery of these subjects. Persuasive design is not just about influence. It’s about understanding thelearner and providing the information to help facilitate the learning experience. Eventually, you’ll learn why stories are important in the process of persuading people. That’s because facts alone won’t significantly change the way people think, do, and feel. Stories do.

Now that you know the recipe, it’s time for you to get acquainted with the simple rules of persuasion. For every element on the course, you need to start considering how the unconscious will be affected by it and how we can improve it for people to get a pleasant learning experience.

Rule 1: Understand How the Brain Works

The brain is highly visual and we're hardwired to heavily rely on visual input when making decisions. That’s why people are able to judge whether a website is worth their time or not in less than 30 seconds. They don’t decide it consciously because it's the unconscious part of the brain that works.

The unconscious also plays a very important role in eLearning. It can be easily influenced by every element on the course, from the actual words used to the colors of your buttons and navigation. Think about the sizes, types and colors of your fonts, for instance. Do they invite learners to read through the screen? Or do they easily distract them?

In this case, you don’t really need actual words to persuade students to read. The design alone is enough. If your material is highly readable on screen, then learners will likely decide to read until the end. Remember, persuasive design isn’t about manipulating students. It’s about encouraging them to do what you want them to do in order to achieve their goals.

Rule 2: The Subconscious Mind Rules

The conscious mind controls only five percent of the day, the subconscious mind rules our thoughts the rest of the time. Yes, the rest here means 95 percent -- which is almost everything.

Be curious about how your material can trigger the unnoticeable or subtle aspects of your learners’ experience. Ask better questions; don’t be content with easy answers. Remember, while the conscious mind is analytical and rational, the unconscious mind follows no logic.

Rule 3: Feel-Do-Think is the Correct Pattern

A lot of people believe that “think-do-feel” is the right pattern when designing a presentation or eLearning course, and they’re wrong. Can you actually persuade students by encouraging them first to think about the contents of your course? Of course, not. You persuade them by first letting them feel what it’s like to finish your course, by letting them asking themselves “Why should I care?”

Rule 4: Emotion is the Brain’s Secret Language

“We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.”--Antonio Damasio

The human brain and the complex set of human emotions. Both are tightly integrated. In fact, emotion is the brain’s secret language. When you trigger an emotion, the brain decides, the body follows.

Don’t forget that people choose emotionally and justify logically. An emotion tells the brain: remember this! It chooses which part of the screen to remember. Then the brain responds: why do I need to remember this?

You have to communicate with the intuitive brain first before you can convince the rational brain.

Rule 5:  A Persuasive Story Always Highlights a Benefit

This rule can be summed up in a question: “What’s in it for me?”

Know that learners always ask themselves such question before they start. If you know how to answer that, and answer it forcefully, then you’re doing the right thing.

Take note that you should highlight the personal and tangible benefit since the start. Specify how the program will benefit them personally. Will it make their job or life easier? Will it save them time or money? Be concrete and compelling.

Rule 6: To Persuade Easily and Effectively, Tell A Good Story

“The single most important thing you can do to dramatically improve your presentations is to have a story to tell before you work on your PowerPoint file.” Cliff Atkinson, Beyond Bullet Points

Facts alone cannot help you persuade people. Stories do, and good stories are very effective tools in the art of persuasion. They keep people engaged and interested. They evoke strong emotions and they’re easier to remember than facts. They tap into the heart of your learners, allowing them to reflect on their experiences and pay attention. It’s why presidents are always advised to tell stories to win votes and influence people.


(@americalearning) What are the keys to help capture learners attention in a virtual education process?

The challenges eLearning professionals face daily are many and varied, and in many ways do not differ too much from the challenges any teacher may face when contemplating how best to hold the students’ attention.

The traditional Dickensian methods of forcing a student to be attentive to avoid punishment have now thankfully been superseded by more effective methods that should be included into any eLearning design.

Given that learners today have more competing stimuli vying for their attention than any other generation of students, makes it vital to do everything possible to grab their attention using these four simple psychological triggers. Incorporating these will undoubtedly go a long way in creating an effective eLearning course.

1) Attention is a limited resource.

Firstly, we must acknowledge an obvious but vital fact, namely that no one can be attentive to everything at once. In fact, people can attend to only a very small amount of information at any one time. Imagine that we were able to give undivided attention to all stimuli streaming into our consciousness through our senses at once like some Kryptonian superbeing. Such an experience would be far from pleasant, and our brains, amazing though they are, just wouldn’t be able to cope with that level of input. If we pay attention to too many things, we can’t pay attention to what is really important. Simple.

Attention is scarce, therefore eLearning designers must ensure that the main teaching points on the screen stand out and are particularly attention grabbing. This way, they’ll be able to guide them to those elements that are more important than others. Remember that learners must be selective about what they focus on and learn. So, by including key information up front you can convince them to read on rather than exit the course.

2) Our minds are drawn to pay attention to new stimuli.

Recently, an experiment was conducted at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, in which students were issued with a specially adapted pair of glasses fitted with a device that measured the direction of the wearer’s gaze and for how long they held their gaze in any particular direction, all good indicators of their internal state of attention. Now, the common assumption is that during any lecture or eLearning program, attention would be greatest toward the first 10-15 minutes and then wane as the learner grew tired of concentrating. The experiment showed, however, that attention was at its highest when the speaker introduced something novel such as humor or a visual aid into the presentation, thus breaking predicted behavior. This element of change, ideally involving some sort of interactive feature, is essential in an eLearning environment. Researchers generally agree this novel element ought to be introduced around every 10-15 minutes. Such interactive features work best if they appeal to all three learning modalities, namely auditory, visual, and kinesthetic.

3) Telling a story is the best way to active our brains.

An interesting fact about learning is that our brains seem curiously hardwired to be receptive to listening to stories, something that history’s great teachers knew instinctively. The experience of telling or hearing a story is processed in our brains in a different way than when we’re just given raw facts. Research shows that stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life. Moreover, experts have discovered that narratives activates many parts of our brains simultaneously, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive.

Why is this important for your next eLearning course? Stories will help you capture--and keep-- your learner's attention. Even the busiest students will stop to listen a story. Telling you to be good to your neighbor is hardly as effective as the story of the Good Samaritan. After all, people don’t pay attention to boring things; they pay attention to emotions. They help the human mind understand, feel, and remember. So, if main points can be conveyed or at least reiterated by means of stories, with main characters and conflict, then attention and retention will be significantly increased.

4) Curiosity is the perfect trigger.

Also vital to holding the learner’s attention is the need to arouse curiosity. At its core, curiosity is all about noticing and being drawn to things we find interesting. When people are curious, they see things differently; they use their observation and exploration skills more fully. In the article "The Power of Curiosity", the author says "The more curiosity you can muster for something, the more likely you are to notice and learn about it, and thus the more interesting and meaningful it will become for you over time".

eLearning with curiosity works because the brain is naturally curious. When you insert the curiosity factor, you are activating every single light in your learner's brain. Use of questions is particularly effective here. Leading the student to a conclusion by the use of questions rather than simply imparting information must be the goal. This will make learners search for answers in their minds. Start with the end in mind by deciding what conclusion you want your learners to reach and lead them on an interactive journey to that conclusion through effective questions.


(@americalearning) What are your suggestions to help virtual learners retain what they learn?

Highly competent instructional designers and professionals now make the most out of scientific research. They usually incorporate new insights, test them and repeat what works. Over time, the weaker insights falter then fade while the stronger ones remain. These scientific principles that stood the test of time are really worth looking at. Here are four of the best:

1) The Spacing Effect

In 1885, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found that people forget a whopping 80% of material they recently learned within 24 hours. This discovery led him to the so-called "Forgetting Curve." Ebbinghaus' remarkable body of research on learning and forgetting, which is still applicable today, showed us that:

  • It's much harder to retain meaningless information.
  • It's much easier to re-learn material than the first time.
  • Learners will experience great success by spreading out their study sessions over time, not by engaging in one-night cram sessions.
  • Instructors and designers can help learners store information in the long-term memory by repeating instruction and spacing it out over time.

Pay special attention to the last sentence. Researchers in the field of learning and memory usually call it "the spacing effect." Here's how you can apply it in practice:

  • Focus on Longer Spacings: The spacing effect doesn't merely advocate repetitions of the same concept. It actually talks aboutspaced repetitions over time. And studies have found that longer spacings are more effective in terms of long-term retention. Longer means long enough to allow students to rest and absorb information—but not too long for them to forget their lessons completely.
  • Vary Your Repetitions: You don't have to adhere to the same type of learning activity. That will only bore students. Repetitions can be presented through different learning media (text, audio, video, images, charts, etc). Start with simple quizzes spaced over days or weeks. Follow up with practical training to help students retain information.

2) The Funnel Approach

A funnel is wide at the top, narrow at the bottom. It's an apt metaphor for an effective learning approach, that is, from general to specific.

You have probably used the same general to specific format. Take, for instance, how you organized or outlined courses into chapters or sections. From a bird's-eye view, the framework you used flows from the general to the specific, from the bigger picture to the smaller details.

The funnel approach helps students recall or retrieve information more effectively. It logically and efficiently presents data in a less intimidating and in a more friendly way.

3) The von Restorff Effect

Also known as the isolation effect, the von Restorff effect explains how we remember things that stand out. Humans, von Restorff tells us, pay more attention to things that are noticeable unfamiliar, different or unusual. Something markedly odd, say a red-colored word in a list of five items, will be more memorable.

But what about long lists? The psychologist-pediatrician von Restorff suggest to style elements in the middle differently to make them memorable. Here are some other examples to try:

  • In storytelling, use an unusual yet still believable plot. An odd name of a character or place is enough to attract attention and arouse interest.
  • In writing, try a new word or an unusual sentence construction. Just be careful not to make sentences needlessly complex or sound forced.
  • In creating presentations, challenge a traditional format and be creative. Something atypical yet well-implemented works.
  • Use images that stand apart from chunks of paragraphs or lines of texts.
  • If images are too common, try audio or video.
  • Stylize texts for emphasis. Use a different color or bold and italicize them. Make headlines or sections bigger than paragraph texts.

4) The Chunking Principle

You probably heard about this before. The technique demands you group units of information into a number of units or chunks. Chunking according to category, relevance or any other variable makes it easier for students to process and remember information. It allows them to better associate, recall and focus on a certain group of information. Effective chunking, of course, is all about making sense of information. Don’t do it just for the sake of breaking content into pieces. Do it to make information more meaningful.

The chunk can be anything—a word, a series of numbers, a small number of items, a string of letters. George A. Miller, the Harvard psychologist who formulated the chunking principle, said that the working memory could process “seven plus or minus two” chunks or units of information at once. Other cognitive researchers, however, found that the short-term memory can efficiently process a maximum number of “four plus or minus one” chunks at once. But they also found that the limited capacity of our working memory hinges on the type and features of the information and the abilities of a person.


(@americalearning) What aesthetically pleasing ways to create online courses you can recommend to encourage student interest?

As the cliche goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. People decide what is beautiful in accordance with their own likes and dislikes. However, studies on what we find aesthetically pleasing find that in truth, there is a serious science to making things beautiful.

We make split second decisions about the aesthetic nature of images, products and websites, often within milliseconds (studies of brain activity suggests that aesthetic impressions form within 300ms to 600ms ). These judgments, formed early and quickly, affect the way someone interacts with the product. In essence, we either trust something or not based on our first impressions.

In eLearning, the aesthetic quality of a course can improve the learning outcomes. Content matters as well, but the beauty of the course shouldn't be underestimated.

eLearning professionals who understand that they need to present content in aesthetically pleasing way, will be able to better share that content. So, increase the effectiveness of eLearning courses by applying three basic principles of aesthetic design.

1) Less is More: Simplicity in Design

Or as Dr. Koichi Kawanain says: "Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means."

Think about a Zen garden. The idea behind these gardens is simplicity. A few well placed rocks, open spaces and raked gravel transforms into a thing of beauty and serenity.

Applying the principle of simplicity in eLearning means relaying information through the simplest means possible. Less information will always be preferred over more information. Too often, designers use every trick in their bag on every screen of a course as a way to engage the learner. However, when too much clutter vies for the learner's attention, the learner may not see the forest for the trees. They end up thinking the course isn't worth so much effort, and the content gets lost.

To achieve simplicity in eLearning course design, first identify the key concept a course screen needs to convey. Then, strip away extraneous elements that distract rather than enhance the concept, just like the Zen garden. Looks matter but, more importantly, simple ideas matter.

2) Use a Style Guide

Within chaos, humans look for order. If they can't find it, they move on. In design, this means having unity within variety so that learners can quickly and easily find patterns, make sense of information, and find connections between concepts.

This concept is easily achieved in eLearning design by creating a style guide. A style guide sets out a template for creating unity within variety by determining ahead of time elements such as:

  • Font size and font choice for different elements such as page headers, article titles, body text, captions and other text options;
  • Borders and placement for images;
  • The look and placement of function buttons like save, back, or next;
  • And other elements that occur on several pages.

By having a style guide in place before design begins, the course naturally finds order within the chaos and increases the effectiveness of the course.

3) Familiar vs. Unique

Studies that examine how and why people find something beautiful show an interesting contrast. People want diversity and novelty, but they also want familiarity. We look for the familiar because it's easier to process. We look for the unique as part of natural curiosity.

Designers have boiled this conflict down to the principle called MAYA or most advanced yet acceptable. Basically, what is the furthest you can stretch a familiar concept so that it becomes new, different and exciting while still retaining enough of the familiar so a learner doesn't get turned off?

  • Employ this concept in eLearning design by:
  • Changing up scenarios or hypothetical situations that tweak the familiar;
  • Using games to learn a new concept rather than text;
  • Adding animation to explain a process instead of flow chart;
  • Or adding different variables to a familiar scenario to reinforce a concept.

Aesthetically pleasing design is much more than making an eLearning course pretty. Taking time to employ these three aesthetic design principles could also make an eLearning course more effective, too.



December, 2013