By Shelley A. Gable
Think back to the last time you were in training, whether it was online or in the classroom. What pieces stand out most? While hopefully there are memorable moments from throughout the course, you can probably also recall how the course started and ended.
Our tendency to remember especially well how sequences of information or events start and end is explained by primacy and recency effects. Below is a simple explanation of each.
Primacy effect is the tendency to be more likely to remember information from the beginning of a sequence (e.g., the beginning of a course) compared to information later in the sequence. Cognitive theorists suggest that at the start of a course, there is not yet a lot of information being processed in working memory, thus allowing the brain to process and remember that early information more easily.
Recency effect is the tendency to be more likely to remember information from the end of a sequence. Cognitive theorists believe that as new information enters the working memory, earlier information is pushed out. Since the information entering at the end doesn't get pushed out as quickly, the brain has more time to process and remember that later information.
The image below, borrowed from Wikipedia, illustrates how much we tend to remember at various points while taking in a sequence of information.
What does this mean for eLearning?
To put it simply, we need to make the bookends of a course as meaningful and content-oriented as possible.
We know that we should start with something that grabs the learner's attention, but many eLearning courses I've seen begin with a list of learning objectives or a very general introductory paragraph (which isn't very exciting to most learners). Instead, the course should start with a clever attention-getter that previews some of the key content.
For example, a customer service lesson might start by challenging learners to answer a customer question that they'll learn more about during the lesson. Learners might then be provided with some of the content needed to answer the question, along with an indication that they'll learn more details soon. An introductory exercise like this can grab learners' attention in a relevant way, serve as an advance organizer for the content, and may make a list of learning objectives that follow seem more interesting. And, this type of opener allows you to leverage the primacy effect by creating a clear link from the first moments in the course to key content that's likely buried somewhere in the middle.
The same principle can be applied to the end of a course. Avoid ending it with a list of learning objectives, often introduced with a stem sentence along the lines of "Now that you've completed this training, you should be able to..." This isn't to say that a list like this shouldn't be included, but it may be worthwhile to avoid making this the very last thing the learner sees in the course. Instead, you might consider ending with a demonstration of how the content should be applied. Or better yet, a final activity in which learners apply the content themselves.
Of course, there are many ways to make the very start and end of an eLearning course meaningful and relevant, so that the concepts of primacy and recency can be leveraged to help learners recall content from the middle of the course. If you happen to have a specific example you've employed, please share!