This article is part of our eLearning series. To read our master guide, check out what's missing in your company's eLearning strategy.

Online training is becoming a bigger and bigger portion of our HR budgets. A recent Global Industry Analysis study found that companies spend over $100 billion annually on eLearning investments! With such a huge outlay of time and money, we should be making darn sure that our learning tools are leveraging the latest in learning sciences research.

Brainscape has spent a lot of time reviewing the most popular eLearning tools, strategies, and dogmas, to distill the most important cognitive science principles that can be implemented in eLearning programs. Our main criterion is always:

Which techniques help employees learn faster and retain information for longer, with the minimum amount of net training time?

And as it turns out, we’ve seen the same few patterns come up over and over again in the body of academic literature.

The following are the 3 top cognitive science-based recommendations for successful eLearning programs. Appropriately, they each align quite nicely with the current popular microlearning trends toward more bite-sized, mobile training technologies. We encourage instructional designers to keep these scientifically proven suggestions in mind as you evaluate your potential eLearning tools and develop your company’s curriculum to improve L&D ROI.

[As an employer or company rep, definitely check out: 'Product knowledge training: Unleashing the beast in your salespeople'.]

Improve eLearning training ROI with cognitive science

Science behind Brainscape graphic
Brainscape uses three principles of cognitive science to be the most effective eLearning training app: active recall, metacognition, and spaced repetition.

1. Engage active recall

Most traditional live and eLearning curricula can be thought of as “passive”. You sit through a lecture, read a training document, flip through a PPT, or watch a video, and you are expected to have “learned” the information. But in reality, passive learning tends to go in one ear and out the other.

Some web and mobile learning developers have attempted to improve this engagement by adding multiple-choice quizzes at the end of each lesson, but these are still barely a step above purely passive curricula. Simply “recognizing” a correct answer from a list of choices is just not representative of employees’ likely real-world applications. We have long known that people are much more likely to retain information when they have been previously trained to recall concepts from scratch, as opposed to from multiple choice quizzes.

In fact, learning scientists from the U.S. Department of Education have been harping on this concept for decades, when it comes to formal education policy. According to Department researchers:

“Quizzes or tests that require students to actively recall specific information directly promote learning and help students remember things longer.”

The same goes for adult learners. Companies should consider training delivery that frequently asks the employee to repeat or recall concepts, from scratch, shortly after they are learned, in order to solidify each memory trace.

Whether we engage active recall through periodic short-answer questions, essays, verbal evaluations, or self-assessment “flashcards”, eLearning investments that use active recall are likely to promote deeper learning.

[See also: Can digital flashcards enhance your L&D?]

2. Foster metacognition

While engaging a learner’s active recall faculties is a good start, simply having them say, write, or think of an answer from their short-term memory isn’t always a guarantee that the concept will “stick”. It is usually helpful to conduct some higher-level reflection to help the concept become more memorable.

Learning scientists call such reflection “metacognition” — or “thinking about your thinking.” Some types of training activities foster metacognition by asking employees to build concept maps, or to otherwise tie their newly acquired knowledge to other concepts that they already know. This helps to build a more holistic understanding when the concepts at hand are very complexly interrelated.

Other types of self-directed eLearning training programs ask employees to gauge how well they know each concept. Brainscape’s adaptive learning platform, for example, uses web & mobile flashcards to break concepts into bite-sized pieces and assess their own knowledge strength. The program asks the learner to rate their confidence in each flashcard on a 1-5 scale, thus encouraging more profound reflection and improving the richness of learning metrics visualization.

eLearning training with judgements of learning
Each flashcard asks the learner to reflect on their confidence and provide a confidence on a scale from 1-5. This fosters metacognition.

Researchers shows that the act of assessing one’s own judgment of learning is one of the most effective ways to deepen a memory trace, while several other researchers have found that our accuracy of assessing how well we know a topic can even improve over time with practice. Companies developing eLearning curricula should consider fostering similar metacognitive activities.

3. Implement spaced repetition

Perhaps the most important component of a corporate eLearning strategy is to ensure that difficult concepts are sufficiently repeated before they slip away from an employee’s memory. As the old latin phrase goes, Repetitio mater studiorum est, or “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”

One way to achieve some repetition is to simply sprinkle in random refreshers of previous content, in each new lesson that an employee may be taking. But that can be pretty inefficient, as some of those repeated concepts may already be obvious to the employee (thus wasting their time), while other concepts may be so difficult that they require more frequent repetitions until mastery.

Good instructional designers typically optimize this process through what is known as “spaced repetition”. Customizing intervals of repetition—based on the learner’s confidence level in each concept—can yield increasing learning gains, the more content is studied and the longer the time over which it is studied.

Spaced repetition to defeat forgetting graphic
Spaced repetition ensures your employees learn quickly and actually remember what they learn.

Typically, an effective spaced repetition system will stagger the intervals of repetition over increasing stretches of time for each exposure (unless the learner downgrades her confidence rating). The optimal interval of spaced repetition is the longest amount of time before the learner would have otherwise forgotten the concept.

Companies who use spaced repetition in their eLearning tend to enjoy a higher ROI from their technology and curriculum development, while maintaining happier employees who hold a greater respect for their L&D departments.

[Read Brainscape’s white paper on confidence-based repetition]

Cognitive science for eLearning training: tying it all together

Cognitive science research overwhelmingly shows that (1) engaging active recall, (2) fostering metacognition, and (3) spacing repetition can drastically improve your L&D effectiveness. And the better you are able to initially break your content into bite-sized chunks, the better that your curriculum will be able to take advantage of these three scientific concepts.

Recent years have seen many companies move toward “flashcard-based” Spaced Repetition Systems (SRSs) as a way to tie these concepts together in a single learning experience. SRS platforms like Brainscape allow instructional designers to work with SMEs to create bite-sized, multimedia flashcards. The steps employees take in studying these flashcards are as follows:

  1. Think of the answer (Active Recall), then reveal it.
  2. Assess how well you knew it on a scale of 1-5 (Metacognition).
  3. Auto-magically see the flashcard again at a personalized interval (Spaced Repetition).

In one simple, personalized engagement loop, SRSs can help employees learn faster and retain knowledge for longer, with less time spent studying. They can also help you feel better about your company’s implementation of solid cognitive science in your L&D!

A note on constructivist learning

In mainstream learning sciences discussion circles, you have likely heard thought leaders discussing an epistemology known as constructivism. This basically refers to the practice of having learners build their own knowledge frameworks (e.g. through their own research, or through project-based learning), as opposed to being spoon-fed “drills”.

Constructivist learning activities can be a great way to kick off an eLearning program. Beginning with a broader understanding of the big picture—through a solid, hands-on introductory workshop—is likely to improve the salience of any concepts reinforced through subsequent eLearning activities or reference tools.

The problem is that good constructivist activities are often more expensive and time-consuming to create. They are likely to require live or virtual facilitators, one-on-one assessment, and/or more time and mental energy expended by the employee. Often, we just simply want our employees to be able to bang out some L&D in a way that is as convenient to them as possible, which is what flashcard SRSs are best for.

A bonus of using an SRS like Brainscape is that the content creators—likely the managers and other SMEs who work with the instructional designers to make the flashcards—must collaborate together to

  1. Determine what information is important.
  2. Condense it into digestible pieces.
  3. Organize those flashcards into a logical hierarchy of decks.

This process is practically the definition of constructivism! So in the process of democratically developing your curriculum, an SRS can deepen your existing leaders’ expertise by tying together all the major cognitive science themes that have been proven to improve learner retention.

If you’d ever like to speak with someone at Brainscape about how you can improve the implementation of cognitive science at your company or organization, please contact us, and we’d be happy to give you some free advice. Either way, best of luck on your employee development journey!


Bahrick, H. P. & Phelps, E. (1987). Retention of Spanish vocabulary over 8 years. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13, 344–349.

Berthold, K., Nückles, M., and Renkl, A. (2007). Do learning protocols support learning strategies and outcomes? The role of cognitive and metacognitive prompts. Learning and Instruction, 17(5), 564-577.

Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger III, H. L. (2007). Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention. Journal of Memory and Language, 57(2), 151-162.

Kerly, A. & Bull, S. (2008). Children’s interactions with inspectable and negotiated learner models. In Woolf, B., et al. (Eds.) International Conference on Intelligent Tutoring Systems (pp. 132-141). Springer.

Moreno, J. & Saldaña, D. (2005). Use of a computer-assisted program to improve metacognition in persons with severe intellectual disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 26(4), 341-357.

Pashler, H., Bain, P., Bottge, B., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing instruction and study to improve student learning. Institute for Educational Sciences practice guide, U.S. Department of Education.

Pavlik, P. I. (2005). The microeconomics of learning: Optimizing paired-associate memory (Doctoral dissertation, Carnegie Mellon University).

Sadler, P. M., & Good, E. (2006). The impact of self-and peer-grading on student learning. Educational Assessment, 11(1), 1-31.