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Back to Basics: 5 Essential Elements of Effective E-Learning

Thursday, August 11, 2016

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Recall a course in college that made a lasting impact on you. What was so unique about it? Was it because it was very useful? Or was it because the instructor was very good? Or did the interaction with peers make it meaningful? If you really think about it, you will identify certain elements that make any learning experience memorable, useful, and enjoyable. Here are just a few elements that come to mind:

  • the motivation of the learner; the more learners are motivated, the more they will learn(reason or purpose for learning)
  • the right stimulus (in the form of knowledge, skills, or attitudes) presented in an engaging and interactive manner (teaching)
  • opportunities to test your learning (application of learning)
  • feedback on the performance, including guidance for wrong responses and reinforcement of the right responses (feedback and reinforcement to complete the learning cycle)
  • rewards for mastering the subject by passing a final exam (extrinsic rewards that improve motivation)

Any or all of these five elements would make learning effective and enjoyable. In a classroom, the instructor is expected to provide most—or all—of these elements. Actually, instructors are seen as “good” only when they are proficient in using most of these elements. But when it comes to self-paced e-learning, there is no instructor to guide the learner, so how does the course provide these essential elements of learning? 

In a world of technology-enhanced learning, it is easy to be led astray by the power of gadgets and tools—so much so that you tend to forget the learning part. I once came across an online course that was so full of digital elements and technological “razzmatazz” that learning got lost in the process. When we create online courses, one way to check if the course is going to be effective is to make sure these five elements are present. 


You need to appeal to learners’ motivation and make it clear from the beginning what they must accomplish upon completion of the course—a certification, career advancement, or knowledge that helps them perform their jobs better. We need to lay this out in the learning objectives and remember that these learning objectives are performance-based. The criteria of mastery and conditions in which the performance takes place needs to be present as much as possible. The course should satisfy the needs of learners: higher knowledge, certification, the ease of doing the job or task, complying with a regulation or statutory requirement, or any other need. Basically, if we are assigning the course to people, they need to know why they ought to invest their time and complete the course. This is the key to motivation. 


Once individuals enroll in the course, we need to ensure that they engage with it, participate in the activities, and complete it. Consequently, the course should have an effective learning strategy that addresses the needs of the audience. A good learning strategy will take into account the audience, the subject, and the learning environment. Different audiences require different teaching approaches. For example, teaching adults, children, factory workers, office staff, Gen X, or Gen Y requires appropriate approaches. There is no single, best way. 


Likewise, different subjects respond better to different teaching methodologies; we don't teach math the same way we teach philosophy. Also, the course should have activities such as hotspots, roll-overs, graphics, slideshows, and animations to help learners retain information better and for a longer period. Additionally, it helps to condense a verbose document into easily understandable pieces. However, keep in mind that learners don’t always have to physically interact with the course. We can also have them interact with it mentally by making them think critically. 

Opportunities to Apply Learning

We need to ensure that the course provides ample opportunities for learners to apply what they’ve learned. This is usually done through formative assessments. There is a variety of assessments to choose from: multiple-choice questions, games, puzzles, drag-and-drop, match, and so on. Formative assessments, ideally, are placed immediately after the learner completes a specific learning objective or subobjective. 

Feedback and Reinforcement

Learning needs reinforcement. In a face-to-face training session, the trainer may ask questions and initiate discussions or interactions to reinforce learning. In the case of online courses, reinforcement can be provided with the help of feedback given to formative assessments in the course. The feedback should be for both wrong and right responses. It is still better to withhold feedback in the case of wrong answers until after giving the learner another chance to get it right. This will make the learner “stretch” a little before the right answer is provided. 



We, as instructors, have to evaluate the effectiveness of the training course, and learners have to evaluate to their learning. In traditional classroom training, this is usually done at a reaction level—smile sheets, feedback forms, or an open house. However, in e-learning, we can reach a learning level of evaluation. Any good e-learning course will have performance-based learning objectives, and we can formulate a robust set of summative assessments to measure the terminal learning. The assessments are usually multiple-choice questions to facilitate learning management system tracking. 


Rewards of learning are as essential as any other element of successful learning. If properly rewarded, learners’ motivation to learn more increases and so will their openness to try what they’ve learned back on the job. Rewards can be tangible in the form of certificates or degrees. When designing the course, it is important to keep in mind the outcome: What is the reward the individual gets on the completion of the course? It could be a certificate, recommendation, or badge, but getting rewarded in one form or another is critical to effective learning. Also, to ensure that learning continues beyond the course, provide learners with resources and assistance for further learning on the subject. 

In a digitally inclined world driven by apps and microlearning concepts, it is good to revisit the basics and remind ourselves of what makes learning effective. Keeping the key elements in mind helps us develop a course that successfully delivers on its objectives.

Check out similar articles: 3 Evidence-Based Training Methods From Ruth Clark’s Updated Meta-Analysis

About the Author

RK Prasad is the founder and CEO of CommLab India, a global e-learning company. He is responsible for formulating business strategy and ensures that his workforce focuses on the true purpose and values of the organization.

RK has 29 years of experience in corporate sales, training, university teaching, and e-learning. He has an MBA and is pursuing his PhD in technology-enhanced learning from Lancaster University. He is also a University Grants Commission–certified lecturer in management, an engaging speaker, and an effective trainer.

1 Comment
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A very well laid out plan for effective eLearning! When designing a course, the instructional designer needs to have the learner in mind at all times, which will guide them in designing more effective courses.
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