Increasing Learning Transfer in eLearning

It's Not Just About instruction

Learning Transfer

What is the point of learning? Why do organizations and individuals invest significant time and resources in educational opportunities each year? Though many people have surely endured trainings that felt so irrelevant and meaningless that these very same questions came to mind, in reality the purpose behind most learning investments is to influence a desired outcome or change. Whether the desired result is progress toward subject mastery required to earn a degree or employee performance improvement to impact a company's bottom-line, achievement of that outcome relies on newly-acquired knowledge being applied in context(s) outside the learning environment. In other words, for instruction to fulfill its purpose beyond the classroom, learning transfer must occur.

Achieving effective learning transfer is actually pretty hard to do, though, even in well-facilitated face-to-face instructional settings. When you take instruction fully online, real knowledge transfer can be even more difficult to attain. And, too often, when eLearning participants fail to master and apply new skills, the online environment itself is blamed for the failed learning transfer rather than the instructional design.  

eLearning Design Best Practices for Optimal Learning Transfer

It is not impossible, however, to deliver virtual learning content that supports and even accelerates learning transfer. Is it often difficult? Sure. Does it require a unique and deliberate instructional design process? Absolutely. But it can be done. Here are five tips for designing eLearning to maximize learning transfer: 

1. Complete a thorough assessment of the organizational goal(s) and the targeted learner

This might sound like common sense but it is shocking how often this critical first step is left incomplete or is skipped altogether. Before you can design any effective eLearning program, you must understand the learners who will be engaging with it. The technical capabilities & access, existing skills & skill gaps, any prior knowledge that should be called upon during the learning process (part of instructional scaffolding), and the context in which the learners are likely to apply new knowledge are all factors that should greatly inform instructional design decisions.

It is also important to have extreme clarity around the organizational end-goals inspiring the investment in new eLearning content. It is not at all uncommon for a company to think it simply needs to beef up its customer service training in order to solve a declining customer satisfaction rates but, in the end, the root issue is more systemic. Still solvable, just not with the customer service training they originally sought. Don't be afraid to ask questions that get to the why-behind-the-why before you go down a specific design path. A complete and accurate assessment at the outset ensures the final product facilitates learning transfer that will actually impact the organization's desired outcomes (see this checklist for more crucial questions to consider before designing any eLearning content). 

2. Provide ample opportunities for practice

Regardless of the content category, the only way to ensure learning transfer in eLearning is to include lots and lots of practice. This is especially important for building-block knowledge, theoretical principles, and dependent processes upon which the course's terminal learning objectives are based. Practice opportunities should be varied, in both format and cadence, to maximize the potential for transfer to long-term memory.

Regular practice exercises also provide early and consistent insights into how each learner is digesting and understanding the eLearning content, which provides opportunities for both individual intervention and content optimization, based on trends observed at the cohort-level.

3. Make content relevant and linked to real-world application

For knowledge to stick, it needs to be applied to appropriate scenarios in different contexts. With certain process-oriented knowledge, this is fairly easy to do in an online environment. But attaining contextual parity for more interactive environments requiring the application of critical thinking skills is not so simple.

To expose learners to authentic application-based eLearning, incorporate interactive case studies and branching scenarios that allow for individualized decision making and feature personalized feedback at specific decision-points throughout the learning path.

4. Utilize collaborative instructional strategies and tools

There are more virtual collaboration tools out there today than existed just a few years ago. And experts in learning transfer agree that collaborative activities are especially instrumental in knowledge retention.

In addition to the familiar collaborative tools from Google (Docs, Hangouts) that support collaborative eLearning strategies, there are many exciting new options to enrich the online learning space. Here are just a few:

  •  OoVoo: A fluid (and free!) video chat tool
  • Conceptboard: Easy-to-use, virtual whiteboard to enable effective online group work
  • Cacoo: Allows multiple users to work on flowcharts, mind maps, wireframes, and much more in an intuitive and real-time environment

5. Design an appropriate learning assessment strategy

How do you know if learning transfer is actually happening unless you are actually looking for it? In addition to practice opportunities and relevant application throughout the eLearning content sequence, a well-designed assessment strategy that targets the end-goals of the eLearning initiative and the participants’ ability to reliably (and continually) achieve those goals, is perhaps one of the most important considerations in eLearning design.

The standard-setting model for assessing whether learning transfer has actually occurred is Kirkpatrick's Summative Assessment Theory. Based on this model, it is only possible to know that learning transfer occurs in level 3 evaluation (Can Learners apply the knowledge and skills beyond the course or training?). So it is important to develop an assessment strategy that not only includes in-course testing and assessment, but also post-training evaluation. Some options for an effective post-evaluation include learner surveys, comparative performance benchmarking, and surveys/interviews with organizational members/departments impacted by the training.

Design Strategy is the Key

Knowledge Transfer

Delivering training online is an increasing necessity in today’s global, telecommuting work world. And eLearning content that is engaging, relevant, and promotes effective learning transfer is possible with the right instructional design strategy. Just as with anything worth doing, eLearning design is worth doing well. 


Never stop learning.


Have comments or questions? Feel free to join the conversation in the Comments section below or connect with me on Twitter (@alimnewcomb).