How to Make Virtual Learning Better, Not Worse, Than In-Person


Virtual learning can be more effective than in-person workshops — if done correctly.

Key Points:

  • When done right, virtual learning is up to six times more effective at achieving behavior change than in-person workshops.
  • In contrast to in-person learning, virtual sessions can optimize attention, generation, emotion, and spacing — the four components of The AGES Model™ essential for memory encoding.
  • Many companies make mistakes when implementing virtual learning. Here’s how to avoid them.

The pandemic changed everything in terms of how organizations learn. Instead of in-person training or leadership retreats, many organizations moved their learning programs online. Unfortunately, NLI’s conversations with larger companies have revealed that most organizations took in-person learning programs, already poor at driving behavior change, and made them worse, not better.

Our research shows that virtual learning, when done right, can be dramatically more effective than in-person workshops. In fact, one analysis showed that a smart virtual learning program was around six times more likely to get people to take actions than in-person learning. Not 6% better, or 60% better, but 600% better.

But many companies aren’t doing virtual learning right — instead, they’re just cutting and pasting what they did in-person into long Zoom meetings. And now that the pandemic has receded, some are ditching virtual learning altogether and returning to in-person training. We believe this is a lost opportunity. Here’s how to make virtual learning better, not worse, than in-person.

The science of learning

To understand why virtual learning programs fail and how to make them better, let’s define the purpose of learning in the first place.

In the organizational context, the purpose of learning is to change behavior. For change to occur, new learning must be remembered. Now, much of the learning that organizations invest in involves human skills, such as how to run meetings well, how to give feedback, or how to have difficult conversations.

In these situations, people are under pressure, and if they’re going to follow something other than their automatic way of interacting, they’ll need to recall what they learned very quickly and easily — literally, in an instant, and likely while feeling anxious.

Let’s say you teach a manager how to run meetings more inclusively. If that manager can only remember what they learned if they pause to think deeply and consult their notes from class, the program has failed. For learning to be effective, the learner must be able to easily recall it even when they’re tired, behind on a deadline, or anxious about getting things wrong and looking foolish in front of their team.

Our research over many years, initially published in 2010 and updated many times since, shows that easy recall under pressure is possible only when four conditions are met during learning: attention, generation, emotion, and spacing — a framework defined by NLI as The AGES Model™.

Research has found the key to effective learning is activating the hippocampus, a brain region that helps consolidate new information into memory. For ideal hippocampal activation to occur, all four AGES components must be optimized. If any of these conditions are not high during learning, then the likelihood of easy recall under pressure drops significantly.

Attention: For learning to occur, participants must pay close attention to what they’re learning. High attention means focusing very closely on one thing, with no distractions.

Generation: Since we form memories by making associations, learning works best when participants generate their own connections to the material, linking new ideas to their existing knowledge.

Emotion: For memories to stick well, there must be strong emotions during encoding, which activate the hippocampus.

Spacing: Learning is most effective when sessions are spaced out over time, especially when the gap between sessions includes one or more nights of sleep.

When deployed correctly, virtual learning is capable of activating high levels of attention, generation, emotion, and spacing — even higher levels than a half-day or daylong workshop.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re seeing in organizations. Instead, many organizations have taken flawed practices from in-person programs and simply migrated them online, making them even worse in terms of attention, generation, and emotion.

Here are the most common mistakes and what to do instead:

Mistake No. 1: Running online learning sessions 2–4 hours in length. Anyone who’s ever had to sit through a long university lecture knows that the brain loses focus quickly. When learning sessions are long, learning is low since participants are unable to pay attention for hours on end at the level needed for strong memory encoding to occur.

The solution: For virtual learning to be effective, sessions should be less than 50 minutes long. But that doesn’t mean the learning itself is shallow. When learning is designed well, learners can achieve intense insights in short periods of time.

Mistake No. 2: Cramming learning into a single session or week. Most learning programs attempt to cram as much learning as possible into a short period. Back when most learning occurred in-person, that approach made more sense, given the costs of reserving physical space and the time required for facilitators and participants to commute to the location. But, virtual learning makes it easy to space sessions out over time without incurring extra costs. Since no commuting is required, it’s easy to break learning up over multiple sessions on different days.

The solution: Organizations should make virtual learning sessions shorter and allow more time in between, stretching learning out over three weeks or more. The result is powerful learning that’s far more effective than a single session could ever be because of the spacing effect. It also allows you to make learning more social, a critical factor for success.

Mistake No. 3: Failing to make learning social. Most learning programs let participants walk out the door and not give the material another thought until they return for the next session — if there is a next session. This is a squandered opportunity to leverage the power of social learning.

The solution: To maximize recall, learning programs should engage participants’ social networks every week, encouraging them to share what they’ve learned with teammates, friends, and family. By connecting learning material to social interactions, participants link new ideas to the brain’s social memory network, resulting in better recall later on.

And thinking other people might be watching you creates positive social pressure. When learning is social, learners encode more richly, recall more easily, and act more often.

Mistake No. 4: Designing for Net Promoter Score instead of behavior change. Most learning programs are designed to be fun and popular. But, since effective learning is effortful, such programs are often ineffective. In fact, learning that really sticks tends to involve making people feel mildly uncomfortable.

The solution: Rather than trying to create content people will like, focus instead on activating habits. That means not just teaching skills but also gauging a program’s effectiveness by measuring change — as NLI does with the Behavior Change Percentage metric.

Virtual learning doesn’t have to be all or none. Bringing people together in-person occasionally to review learning and share insights can have social benefits. But, before companies migrate away from virtual learning, it’s important to recognize how much more effective it can be than in-person training — if done correctly.

Author: NeuroLeadership Institute

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