Evidence-Based Training: Is eLearning More or Less Effective than Classroom Training? (An Interview with Dr. Will Thalheimer)

Question for you: what’s more effective in aiding employee learning–elearning courses or classroom training?

We asked the noted learning expert Dr. Will Thalheimer to answer that question. And presenting information from his Does eLearning Work? white paper and metastudy, the simple answer he gave was: classroom training < elearning < blended learning solutions.

(If it’s been a while since you last attended math class, that means classroom training is less effective than elearning, which is in turn less effective than blended learning solutions that use both classroom training and elearning.)

But….there’s much more to the answer than that. And in fact, that simple presentation of the answer isn’t just incomplete, it’s misleading.

So we encourage you to read this interview with Dr. Thalheimer to learn more about the effectiveness of elearning and classroom training, and to learn more about how to make both more effective.

If you’ve been reading along lately, you know we’ve also published interviews with Dr. Thalheimer on the topics of smile sheets and spaced learning.

eLearning v. Classroom Training: What’s More Effective–and Why

Convergence Training: What did your study find about the effectiveness of elearning as compared to classroom training?

Dr. Will Thalheimer: This was interesting. And ultimately, not surprising to those who know the research. If you compare elearning to classroom training “in the wild,” let’s say, it turns out that elearning tends to be slightly better, more effective, than classroom training.

HOWEVER, elearning is not a “thing.” Classroom training is not a thing. Both of them are compromised of many learning factors. What typically happens is that when we have classroom training, we tend to lecture more, and have less interactivity and less real-world practice. And because of that, elearning tends to be better.

Now, when the researchers were very clear in holding the learning factors steady, in other words, if you have an animation presented in elearning, you would have the same animation presented on a PowerPoint-projected slide in the classroom, when the learning factors were heard constant, then the results were the same.

Because it’s not whether it’s elearning or classroom that matters. What matters are the learning methods used.

Now, another aspect of this research was the finding that both elearning and classroom training can get much better results if they follow some of the learning science recommendations that have bubbled up, and that are strong. Things like spacing, and retrieval practice, and realistic practice, feedback at the right time and in the right way, using variety…these sort of fundamental learning factors we ought to be using. And we don’t do enough of them in the classroom, we don’t do enough of them in elearning, and both can be better.

The Benefits of Blended Learning

Convergence Training: What did your study show about the effectiveness of elearning alone and/or instructor-led training alone as compared to the effectiveness of a blended learning solution that uses both elearning and instructor-led training?

Dr. Thalheimer: Well, the research shows if you compare classroom to elearning to both, which people call blended, that the blended learning tends to do better. Well, that’s probably because when you do that, the instructional designers are more intentional about which methods (visuals, feedback, practice, etc.) they use in each modality (elearning or classroom). So again, it’s not about the blending, it’s about the methodology, the learning factors used.


Key Learning Methods for Any Training Delivery Method

Convergence Training: Can you tell us more about the underlying instructional methods that can make each of these training delivery methods effective?

Dr. Thalheimer: I’ve offered what I call the ‘decisive dozen,’ the 12 most important learning factors. And I may not be completely accurate. But the point is there are some things that are so important that we all ought to be doing those. And too often, we make the mistake of not doing them.

Here’s the biggest mistake in instructional design: presenting too much information. And what that means is that we are using up time that we might use to provide realistic practice, and spaced repetitions, and reflections, and things that really solidify learning, and support learners in their attempt to learn and remember it. But we all…I have this problem, too…you’ve got all this great information, and you want to get it across, but, you know…it’s a ridiculous idea. Let’s say we’re teaching 20 key things. If we teach all 20, and people remember 5 of them, is that better than teaching them 10 things and having them remember 8 of them? Because when we teach 10 things and we really have time to go over them, give practice, focus on them, think about how they will be used; whereas when we teach 20 we might not have enough time to go over them, and we’re just presenting stuff, and we know that doesn’t work too well.

Retrieval, Recall, and Recognition

Convergence Training: I wonder if we could ask you to more fully explain something you mentioned earlier. You talked about retrieval practice, and I think you’re contrasting that with recognition, perhaps. Could you explain what you mean by retrieval practice and how it’s different than recognition?

Dr. Thalheimer: So retrieval practice is just general conception, people retrieving information from memory. And retrieval practice is just giving people information and having them practice retrieving that information.

You know, if want a baseball shortstop to learn how to be a better shortstop, we give them lots of practice with ground balls, and have them throw it over to first base, right? With our learners, what are they going to have to be doing to use the learning? They are going to have to retrieve that information in order to use it. So we ought to give them practice in that retrieval. And that ought to be realistic, and not focused on knowledge and facts that are not useable, but focused on things things they can really use. So it’s just sort of the general concept, where people are remembering information.

Recall is often contrasted with recognition. And this is research kind of talk, and most of us don’t have to worry about this too much, but in research studies on recall, we might ask a learner “OK, you just read this passage, write down everything you can remember.” Or we could have cued recall, like “What is the capital of Pennsylvania?” So we cue them with the question, and they have to retrieve it by themselves. While on the other hand, with recognition, where we say “What is the capital of Pennsylvania?” and we give them some choices (Dover, Saskatchewan, Harrisburg) and the learner recognizes “OK, it’s Harrisburg.” So that’s recognition. And from a learning standpoint, the more difficult that retrieval is, the better, so recognition tends not to be as good from a learning standpoint.

Talking about Testing

Convergence Training: It seems like that lesson can be used to create better test questions during or after training, especially in multiple-choice questions.

Dr. Thalheimer: So, talking about multiple choice questions, let me make things difficult. Let me disambiguate something. Multiple-choice questions tend to have some problems, BUT those problems have work-arounds. We CAN write good multiple-choice questions that give people a realistic scenario, make the answer choices all plausible, make it difficult to choose between them, and there are some other things that are even more sophisticated, that I talk about one of my workshops on scenario-based questions. So I don’t want to send out the message that we should throw away multiple-choice questions, because there’s definitely a place for them.

Convergence Training: Good point. Rewriting them so they’re not just recalling information and facts, but you’re putting the learner in a scenario and giving them options and asking them to make the best decision.

Dr. Thalheimer: Yeah, that’s right.

Final Thoughts on eLearning Effectiveness

Convergence Training: Any last key thoughts or comments on this issue of the effectiveness of elearning, classroom training, and blended learning?

Dr. Thalheimer: The people that sort of understand the general concepts that the research draws out, and understand the classic argument between Richard Clark and Robert Kozma (there’s a big debate, anyway, you can look that up), even people who understand that distinction, and understand the results, found some real value in looking at the examples in the study showing that elearning does not have to focus on simple information, that it can look at things that are complex, that it can encourage social interaction and social learning, so I think some of the examples in the later parts of my Does eLearning Work? white paper can really help people break out of the box with their ideas about what elearning is.

Convergence Training: Good point. That makes me think of something like Cathy Moore’s Haji Kamal course or Anna Sabramowicz’s Broken Coworker course (see here for more on both Moore & Sabramowicz and their use of scenario-based learning).

Dr. Thalheimer: Yeah.

Conclusion: Underlying Instructional Methods Create the Effectiveness of eLearning, Classroom Training, and Blended Learning Solutions

So as you see, they way we lead this article, by stating that elearning is better than classroom training, definitely isn’t the whole story.

By focusing on including those instructional methods that lead to effective support of learner understanding and learner memory, we can all make our elearning, our classroom training, and our blended learning solutions more effective.

So you can use and like and defend both elearning courses and classroom training–just like it’s true that you can like both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (for younger readers, this was once a hot issue of debate).

Remember to check out the following resources from Dr. Thalheimer:

And don’t forget to check the other articles that came from this series of interviews with Dr. Thalheimer:

See you next time!

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

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