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Terry Erdle

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The confidence to improve online training


Terry Erdle outlines how employing confidence-based learning, grounded in neuroscience, could help online training fulfill its potential.

Online learning tools are changing the face of training, providing improved accessibility, flexibility and mobility. MOOCs, the poster children of online learning, often receive thousands of registrations. However, there is an alarming disparity between enrolment and completion numbers (the average MOOC completion rate has been as low as 7%. Clearly, online learning is failing to live up to its potential, or prove as effective as has been hoped.

Elements of neuroscience can be used to inform and improve online training tools. It has become clear that confidence-based learning methods (that assess not only a candidate’s knowledge, but their confidence in that knowledge) could help trainees absorb, retain and recall IT skills. These methods include:


Priming is the method of providing trainees with a preview of the content to be learned through a short set of questions and visual cues. Rooted in the principles of neurobiology and cognitive psychology, priming prevents trainees becoming overwhelmed by a deluge of new information, as they perhaps might be in a ‘broadcast’ model like a MOOC. By getting a taster of what is to come, not only are trainees prepared for what they are about to learn, they have a better chance of recognising and engaging with it when it does come up. This increased engagement in turn leads to better retention of knowledge.


The opposite of cramming, spacing is geared toward maximising long-term retention of training material. Most long-term memories aren’t instantly formed; rather, memory must undergo a consolidation process – called synaptic consolidation – before it can be remembered for longer than just a few moments. Spacing promotes this consolidation process by introducing information to learners over intervals of time, giving trainees' brains the chance to convert new information into long-term memory.

The testing effect

Studying and testing in tandem offers greater retention than studying on its own, by training candidates in recollection as well as their course material. Memories are not formed in a vacuum. Associations between elements such as colour, sound and emotion are often as much a part of the memory as the information itself. For the same reason that retracing your steps can help recalling the location of a misplaced item, it is important to create learning conditions in which information can be recalled when it matters, such as during an exam or in a work setting.

Monitoring motivation

Trainee engagement is the key to them progressing through and completing a course. Research, particularly around video gaming, tells us that dopamine levels play an important role in engaging learners. Incorporating key motivational triggers often found in gaming, and providing a sense of progression, risk, achievement and curiosity, regulates users’ dopamine levels, without overwhelming them. These regulated dopamine levels create a positive feedback loop, which encourages further progression and success. Immediate feedback also allows trainees to quickly learn from mistakes and ultimately, make it less likely that they will abandon the course.


There is a limit to the amount of information the human brain can store in short-term memory. After reaching this threshold, old information must be forgotten for new information to be considered; this is called the learner’s working memory capacity. By analysing data (such as time taken to answer a question and how often a given response is selected), we can determine when users are approaching their working memory capacity, and when time must be given for synaptic consolidation to take place. A system that responds to each individual's own learning pace prevents trainees becoming overwhelmed on subjects they are unfamiliar with and bored on ones they are well versed in. This makes them much more likely to absorb and retain information in the long term, as well as improving their chances of completing the course.

The way that each person learns is slightly different, and the way that we learn online differs again. By personalising online tools, training providers can improve the effectiveness and entertainment value of training. By avoiding the ‘race to the finish’ mindset of traditional online learning tools, trainees can quickly master the information they need to learn, recall the right information at the right time and perform with confidence. With CompTIA CertMaster, students and working professionals receive a scientifically customised learning experience, allowing trainees to study at the right pace for them and improving their ability to retain information for use in an exam or workplace setting.

Terry Erdle, executive vice president, skills certification & learning at CompTIA


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