How to remember what you’ve learned online

Digital courses offer immense flexibility, but they must be treated by both users and employers with as much care as any other format to ensure that the learning sticks


As most of the world closed down last spring, the potential for digital learning opened up. After all, with lockdown restrictions keeping classrooms empty, going online was the only way for many people to study. LinkedIn, for instance, reported that professionals around the globe spent a combined 49 million hours on its courses alone during the 12 months to July 2021 – a year-on-year increase of 50%.

Ellen Buchan is insight executive at the Association of MBAs and Business Graduates Association, which recently conducted an international survey of 171 business school leaders. 

“The shift to digital teaching looks set to stay,” she predicts. “All but 16% of our respondents are planning to retain the new technologies they’ve adopted during the pandemic, while 82% expect to make further investments in online tuition. Their motivations include wanting to be ahead of the market, as well as preparing students for the digital workplace.” 

These findings are understandable, given how online learning has proved its worth during the Covid crisis. But, while it clearly provides more flexibility than conventional alternatives are able to offer, learners can find it harder to retain information conveyed through their computer screens. So how can professionals increase their chances of success?

To start with, that very same flexibility could actually oblige learners to take a more disciplined approach to their studies, according to Matt Stanfield-Jenner, director of learning at digital education platform FutureLearn. 

“Establishing goals, behavioural standards and other good habits is important for any successful learning exercise, but especially online,” he says. “This is because its anytime, anywhere format obliges you to manage your own agenda. It forces you to be more responsible.”

Next, a conducive learning environment is crucial for helping learners to maintain their concentration. Bianca Miller-Cole, co-author of the newly published entrepreneurs’ guide The Business Survival Kit, stresses the importance of freeing yourself from all distractions. 

“That means switching off your phone, ignoring your emails and truly setting time aside to concentrate on learning,” she advises. “Treat the content – whether it’s live or recorded – as if you were in a room with a teacher, focused on their lesson.”

Sharing what we learn with others can help us to retain information too, notes Gwenan West, head of people at software provider CIPHR. 

“You’re much more likely to remember something if you have to explain it to someone else,” she says. “If you’re learning online as part of a group, create a virtual community. Use this forum to discuss course content with your fellow students. This will not only help you with fact retention; it will also enable you to ascertain other people’s understandings of the material, which may differ from your own.”

The relevance of the course material is clearly also key to successful knowledge retention, as it gives learners a better chance to put their knowledge into practice. The more applicable the information, the more likely they are to be able to understand how it will benefit their work and career prospects.

If you suspect that people aren’t retaining what they’ve been taught, mentor and coach them

Rachel Heron is head of people transformation at BT Security, which offers employees a range of digital learning tools, including Pluralsight, Immersive Labs and Centrical. She says that “keeping the training relevant is one of the most important things for our team. The digital platforms we use offer benchmarking and suggestions for improvement. People can see exactly what they need to learn if they want to progress. They also have a clear view of how certain skills can be transferable if they’re seeking to change roles.”

For a more futuristic approach to improving information retention, consider learning in virtual or augmented reality (VR and AR), suggests Dr Alex Young, founder and CEO of immersive training company Virti.

“VR and AR are perfectly suited to help develop the skills required for infrequent scenarios and high-risk environments – think oil-rig engineering, brain surgery and emergency responses,” he says. “Research has shown that humans learn best by deliberate, repetitive practice that’s easy to access and fun to engage with. Students who train on immersive tech platforms not only develop more refined skills but also hold on to their knowledge for longer.”

So how can business leaders be confident that any investment they make in employee development is actually worth it? The first step is to decide in advance how you plan to gauge the value of your employees’ educational endeavours.

“If it’s relevant, look at key performance indicators before and after the learning activity,” West suggests. “If you suspect that people aren’t retaining what they’ve been taught, mentor and coach them. Give them time to go through what they’ve learnt and provide a platform or project that will enable them to practise their new skills.”

Skill retention assessments can also be built into immersive platforms, with artificial intelligence systems able to gather performance data gleaned from multiple-choice quizzes or practical exercises, Young says. 

“Each user’s progress can then be monitored over a period to gauge their knowledge retention and pinpoint areas for further development,” he explains.

BT Security offers mentoring classes, using an in-house training team and subject experts to help “embed the learning and close any identified gaps”, Heron says. “The supported learning cohorts ensure that our people have the best possible chance of passing their exams.”

Stanfield-Jenner agrees, stressing that managerial engagement is crucial. “Gone are the days of sending people away on training days. Instead, colleagues can pick up anything from 10-minute micro-learning through to deeper learning on a 100-hour credential. But they all require some level of support, advocacy and integration,” he says. “A big part of that is to build learning into people’s everyday working lives. By setting professional development goals that stretch employees and embedding learning within that framework, you can be sure that you’re helping people to learn in the knowledge that they have your full backing.”

Ultimately, he adds, integration is essential wherever possible. It gives employees the chance to apply what they’ve learnt within the strategy of the business. 

Stanfield-Jenner concludes that real benefits can accrue only if the learner has had the chance to apply their new knowledge and skills. “This allows them to demonstrate a change in behaviour, challenge existing practices and show that tangible, valuable results have resulted from their aptitude for learning.”