December 12

What does it really take to learn something?


The internet makes it easy for anyone to share information with a global audience. That’s (generally) fantastic!

But…that can also be problematic when it comes to online courses, because being exposed to information is not the same as actually learning it. And the whole point of creating an online course (or taking one) is to make  actual learning happen.

We all know what it’s like to be exposed to information. Because it is now so easy for anyone to share information globally, we are all exposed to far more information on a daily basis than we can process and take in.

Sometimes it can feel like a giant game of “whack-a-mole”, just trying to stay on top of all the information that pops up in our inboxes, our social media feeds, and elsewhere in the online universe.

"Whack-a-mole" game representing new information constantly popping up and needing to be swatted away

So with all that information constantly bombarding us, how do we know what real learning is? And how can we make it happen?

Real learning requires focused time and attention that allows us to concentrate on the information we’re exposed to, long enough to fully take it in and process it.

Really learning information means not only being exposed to it, but also processing it, labelling it in meaningful ways, and storing it in long term memory. 

Long term memory is like our brain's vast storage warehouse. Information needs to be stored there properly so we can retrieve it later. 

So: learning information (as opposed to just being exposed to it) means taking it in, processing it, and storing it in long term memory for later retrieval.

Young man taking stock of inventory that he is able to retrieve from a warehouse because it has been properly labeled and shelved

One of the best ways to learn new information is to associate it with something we already know.

The new material:

  •  may be a further elaboration of something we already know 
  •  may be an exception to something we already know.....OR
  • may blow everything we already know completely out of the water, requiring us to rethink our entire paradigm.
people with flying lamp ideas.

An important best practice for multimedia learning is NOT to bombard readers with large blocks of uninterrupted text. 

Another important principle is to use relevant graphics that add context and make the material easier to remember.

This hilarious post from the The Onion makes the point that large blocks of uninterrupted text are really hard to process and take in.

The same goes for long talking-heads videos.

It may feel cathartic to get everything we know about a topic out of our heads and onto the screen in one big brain dump, but it’s not easy for someone else to take all that in.

A long talking-heads style brain dump is a great first draft… but it’s not a finished product that people can easily learn from.

If you want people to really learn from the information you’re sharing, rather than just be exposed to it (and possibly swat it away like a “whack-a-mole”), then here are a few things you can do:

  • Create a “frame” around the information to make it stand out.
  • Use images that provide context.
  • Help the reader focus on the EXACT thing you want them to learn.
sign that says "travel--and inspire your life" in a clear frame that separates it from the background

Get people's attention up front.

You can use an eye-catching image or a short entertaining video to appeal to the senses on multiple levels.

Get people to "raise their hands" and put their full focus on what you are sharing with them.

Illustration of hands raised in the air enthusiastically

Another way is by only exposing readers to small chunks of information at a time.

Help people process the information and relate it to what they already know.

Keep the whole person sitting on the other side of the screen, in mind.

  • Who are they? 
  • How is this information relevant to them?
  • What’s their reaction?
Many people portrait on a tablet screen

Speaking of which, I’d love to know if and how this information is relevant to you -- and what your reaction is.

  • Are you tired of being exposed to so much information that there’s not time to really process and learn it?
  • Are you concerned about how to present information in ways that make it easy for others to really learn it?

    If you’d like to talk about it, join us in the Course Design Formula® Facebook community, or write to me at I promise to really learn from what you say!


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