7 Tips To Use The Elaboration Theory In Online Training

7 Tips To Use The Elaboration Theory In Online Training
Summary: You need to build online training success on a sturdy foundation. But how can you help your corporate learners broaden their knowledge base when complex ideas are involved? The simple answer is sequencing your online training content and gradually building a schematic framework. In this article, I’ll share 7 tips for using the Elaboration Theory in online training.

How To Use The Elaboration Theory In Online Training

Charlie Reigeluth is the founder of the Elaboration Theory [1], which states that learning curriculum should be organized based on the level of complexity of the information presented. Learners should be presented with the basics first in order to form a basis for comprehension, then more involved concepts should follow. The Elaboration Theory allows learners to assign meaning to the subject matter and view it in context, so that future ideas, tasks, and skills can be more effectively synthesized. Here are 7 top tips for using Reigeluth’s Elaboration theory in your online training program.

1. Start With The "Big Picture"

Based on the Elaboration Theory, online training experiences must begin with a general overview of the subject matter. For example, an outline of all the steps involved in a task. This "big picture" gives corporate learners a navigation map they can follow throughout the online training course. It also helps them see the connection between each of the sub-topics or steps and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. After providing them with a navigation map, you should lead off with the most basic ideas and concepts. Elaboration involves a "simple to complex" sub-theory, which states that online training lessons must be presented in a specific sequence. Ideally, the online training modules or activities should gradually increase in difficulty or explore more complicated concepts.

2. Use Elaboration Techniques

Elaboration techniques allow corporate learners to elaborate on a topic so that they can create meaning. Rhetorical and open-ended questions and creative writing prompts are two prime examples of elaboration techniques that you can use in your online training course. However, any online training activity that helps your corporate learners make connections between related concepts will promote assimilation. For instance, analogies, real world scenarios, and shocking facts can build upon existing mental schemas.

3. Make It Micro

One of the primary objectives of the Elaboration Theory is to distill tasks, skills, and ideas down to their simplest components. In other words, how can you achieve the desired outcome as quickly and efficiently as possible without compromising knowledge retention? Microlearning online training activities offer bite-size information that your employees can easily absorb. Chunk the online training content down into 5-minute corporate eLearning videos or branching scenarios that are mobile-friendly. Incorporate infographics and charts that include the bare essentials. Make it easy and convenient for them to get the information they need whenever, wherever.

4. Put Employees In The Driver's Seat

Employees must be able to control certain aspects of the online training experience, such as which online activities they access and in what order. They should also have a direct say in which skills they learn and have the opportunity to set their own goals. They most likely already know their performance gaps and areas for improvement. They are also aware of past experiences and preexisting knowledge that they can build on. So, give them the power to get behind the wheel and plan their personal online training experiences.

5. Summaries Improve Synthesis

No elaborative online training experience is complete without a comprehensive summary. In fact, you should create detailed outline that features every step or topic involved at the end of each online training lesson, AND your corporate learners should put the information into their own words. If you are dealing with more involved or complicated subject matter, such as complex compliance regulations, summarizations should happen more frequently. The online training program must begin with a general overview, and then end with one to improve information synthesis.

6. Choose The Right Structure

We've covered the beginning and end of your online training course design, so now let's discuss the in-between. According to the Elaboration Theory, there are three distinct structures that you can use in your instructional design [1]:

1. Conceptual

The most simplistic or familiar concept is presented first, before introducing more complicated concepts in subsequent modules.

2. Procedural

Steps appear as they would when an employee is performing them on-the-job. This approach is ideal for tasks and procedures.

3. Theoretical

Presents the most basic principles first and then moves onto more complex principles or sub-theories.

Some Elaboration theorists suggest that there is a fourth model that you can employ, which is "learning prerequisites". In this case, employees must complete prerequisite online training modules or activities before they can advance to the next online training course. For example, a customer service employee must pass the point-of-sale online system training before they can learn about the return process.

7. Utilize Cognitive Cues

Cognitive cues, also known as "cognitive strategy activators", are stimuli that improve comprehension and enhance knowledge retention. There are two different types of cues:

1. Imbedded

Prompts the corporate learner to engage with the subject matter, usually on a subconscious level. For example, they view an online training infographic or chart and begin to see the relationship between concepts or the steps in a task.

2. Detached

Learners are required to apply skills or knowledge that they already possess. For example, employees have to complete an online training simulation or answer a question using the online resources that are available to them and their previous knowledge on the subject matter.

Think of your online training program as a pyramid. You must first create a solid base that supports all future online training experiences. Slowly but surely your employees can acquire new ideas and skills from the online training course until they’ve achieved their goals. However, they also have the opportunity to see the great pyramid in all of its glory before it’s even constructed, thanks to the general overview you offer in the beginning.

Would you like to learn more about the Elaboration Theory? Read the article Instructional Design Models and Theories: Elaboration Theory to discover a detailed overview of Reigeluths’s theory, including the steps involved and its fundamental strategies for presenting online training content in increasing order of difficulty.


  1. Reigeluth, C. M. (1979). In search of a better way to organize instruction: The elaboration theory. Journal of Instructional Development, 2 (3), 8-15.