5 Criteria MEANS Test: Effective eLearning Delivery
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Effective eLearning: The 5 Criteria MEANS Test

From an organizational perspective, the aim of learning is to enable an employee to do something new, or differently, or to change their behavior. Of course, for this to happen, learning must be retained. There are 5 criteria that need to be simultaneously in place to promote learning and the retention thereof.

In traditional classroom/in-person approaches to teaching or training, it is difficult to meet the 5 criteria due to logistics and cost. However, well-planned eLearning courses can overcome these challenges and achieve all of the 5 criteria simultaneously and thereby are significantly more effective than traditional/in-person classroom approaches. To achieve this, apply the MEANS acronym as a reminder of practice that promotes vastly improved learning effectiveness. When designing, implementing, and iterating your eLearning programs pay careful attention to:

  • Measurement
  • Emotion
  • Attention
  • Networking
  • Spacing

The discussion below will deal with each of the 5 criteria separately. However, it is critical to remember that for optimum learning to occur, the 5 criteria need to be in place simultaneously and working together. Optimum learning, and retention thereof, enables people to "react in the moment," when they are under pressure and to be able to easily recall what they have learned and then to apply it.


Be mindful, in the design phase, that the aim of an organization's eLearning program is to change the behavior of participants or to teach them a new skill or better way of doing something.

The old adage "what doesn't get measured, doesn't get done" has valuable application in this context. The aim of any program is to change existing habits or teach new skills and their application. It is therefore essential, in the design phase, to build in ways to measure the degree to which the required changes have been activated, as a measure of success of the intervention versus only that of a Net Promotor Score.

By way of example, in a program on dealing with conflict, a specific module may concentrate on teaching a technique for diffusing a potential conflict situation. Most participants will have faced potential conflict situations and will probably have a habitual way of dealing with them (for example, ignoring or removing themselves). The aim of the program is to change this habit by using the new technique to handle the potential conflict situation more effectively.

Research indicates that learning sticks better when students feel slightly uncomfortable. However, often the design of program content and delivery overfocus on participant enjoyment and the achievement of a high Net Promotor Score. This tendency can be tempered, in the program design phase, by intentionally building in a measure of the learning tension created as well as the degree to which the habitual response (to a potential conflict situation) is replaced by the ability of the participant to easily engage the new learning. Remember, when participants need to use this technique, it will be in a real situation. They may feel uncomfortable/under pressure and they will not able to refer to notes. The program would have been a waste of time if, in this moment of need, the program had delivered a high Net Promotor Score to the detriment of real learning. Making learning entertaining and fun is important but so is the importance of taking participants out of their "comfort zone" to do things differently. Build this intent into your design protocols and make it a key Measurement of program effectiveness.


The hippocampus is the area in the brain that integrates new information into memory. Emotion activates the hippocampus. Design of eLearning interventions needs to engage the participants emotionally to create an environment conducive to real learning. There are many proven techniques to do this. Don't overlook this critical criterion in your eLearning design protocols.


Optimum learning takes place when the participant is able to fully engage their working memory to focus on learning one thing at a time, without other distractions. People can only concentrate fully for short periods of time. Therefore learning sessions need to be as short as possible, ideally no longer than 40 minutes, to achieve maximum concentration and high levels of learning. Learning design must focus on keeping the participant's attention and learning tension for the duration of the module. Learning tension is an outcome of a sense of focus on one thing that is important, and the importance of and concentration on learning about it induces a sense of mild discomfort. In addition, new information is more easily embedded if the participant is able to form an association between the new knowledge and existing stored knowledge. Help participants to draw these associations and it will encourage them to generate their own associations, which is even more powerful.

Attention is such an obvious criterion for effective learning that it is glossed over if it is not an integral part of a robust course design protocol. Being entertained for the duration of a session is not the kind of attention that leads to deep and meaningful learning, which is why Net Promotor Scores are not a measure of the value of the learning intervention.


Encouraging participants to share what they have learned with their social networks reinforces learning and provides additional insights. Connecting learning material to social interactions enables participants to link new ideas to their social network and this improves recall. Also, social pressure can enhance learning in a positive way, in the sense that others are paying attention to what you are learning induces richer encoding, better recall, and a greater tendency to action. Social learning is powerful, and it must be a key component of any eLearning program that is purposefully integrated during the design phase.


Virtual learning has a massive logistical and cost advantage over in-person learning when it comes to spacing. The levels of spacing required for effective learning are often too costly and too logistically challenging for in-person training. This is where virtual learning has a distinct advantage, which is not to be missed. Appropriate spacing can be seamlessly and cost-effectively built into any eLearning program, with proper consideration at the design phase.

Ideally, virtual learning should be designed around 40-minute modules that each concentrate on one byte of new learning. Modules should be spaced by at least a day, with a night of sleep in between. One byte of new learning that is focused and well planned can deliver meaningful new insights in a short period of time. Attention must be paid to the continuity of modules so that each module builds seamlessly on the previous ones and the participants have a clear context of "the bigger picture" that is being achieved by these consecutive learning interventions.

Spacing is also a critical factor in building in the benefits of social learning, described above.


If you mean business in delivering effective eLearning, build this MEANS test into your course design protocols.