What’s The Best Type Of Content For The 21st-Century Learner, And How Do You Deliver It?

Training Content Types That Help The Modern-Day Learner

Times are changing. Especially when it comes to adult learning. Today, we need to learn more often, more quickly, and more independently than ever before. Whether soft or hard skills, they’re all at the crux of career advancement, business success, and even employee happiness.

But our understanding of adult learning has evolved because research continues to shed light on the way our brains process information and experience training content. For example, the once buzz-worthy concept of learning styles has been debunked. Shocking, I know! And yet, heaps of studies have found learning styles to be little more than an illusion [1].

So, are your eLearning courses built on flawed assumptions? If right about now, you’re developing a cold sweat above your brow, you can stop panicking. Because we’ve compiled a list of all the latest research findings to help you create and deliver the training content types that 21st-century learners crave.

Here are 6 ways in which you should be adapting your content:

1. Make Discussion Forums Essential Learning Content

Let’s face it: discussion forums aren’t exactly groundbreaking innovation anymore. They’ve been used in online courses for quite some time, and as a learning concept, they’re pretty straightforward. Yet, as training content types go, they’re often overlooked, and delivered as an ‘optional extra’.

If this sounds familiar, then it’s time to take a different approach. Because today, employees learn mainly through social interactions. And these interactions have all sorts of benefits. For example, collaboration exposes learners to diverse perspectives, and diverse perspectives lead to creativity.

So, start moving discussion forums and social activities to the forefront of your training content development and delivery. Rather than being an opt-in part of training, make forums essential. Then, ask questions that intentionally spark debate on the forums.

When learners adopt new perspectives, or acquire new knowledge, through these discussions, they’ll be more likely to imitate their peer’s beliefs and behaviors in the workplace.

2. Add Questions And Space Between Video Repetitions

If you watch a video multiple times, will you be more likely to remember its content than if you watched it only once? It depends. A study, published in the Experimental Psychology Journal in 2018 [2], found that immediately re-watching videos doesn’t lead to better learning. To get real results, learners need to take some time before rewatching a video. Even better if they get some sleep in there, too.

So, design your learning paths in such a way that learners only rewatch each video after some time has passed. In between, allow them to practice their skills or discuss their experiences using other types of training content, like assessments or discussion forums. To keep track of when and how often learners repeat videos, you’ll need an LMS that supports SCORM like TalentLMS.

But there’s one more trick. Recently, a study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition [3] found that pre-questions boost learning from videos. So, add one or two questions to the beginning of your videos, and again at the end. These questions should relate to the core learning outcomes of the course or module.

3. Make Text Content Skimmable

If we’re honest: how many times, while reading this article, have you skipped a line or two? Maybe scanned your eyes over the screen in an F-shaped pattern, looking for the words most relevant to you? Don’t worry, this type of skim reading is perfectly normal. Or at least, it’s becoming normal.

Because, without even knowing it, our brains are changing. The neuronal circuit that underlies the ability of the brain to read is transforming in a way that makes it more difficult for us to engage in deep reading. In fact, research, by Ziming Liu from San Jose State University [4], found that word-spotting, and browsing through text, is becoming the norm.

And as they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Make your text content ‘skimmable’ by including clear and descriptive headings and subheadings. Even better, break your content up into separate and easily digestible chunks of reading. This way, learners can move straight to the content they’re looking for, and they’ll be more likely to read the full paragraph or page.

4. Make All Content Desirably Difficult And Novel

Do you know how amazing our brains are? They’re designed to process heaps of information and stimuli, even when it’s bombarding us all at once. Still, we have our limits. Because dividing our attention between too much information can leave us feeling, well, a little fried. Worse, we tend to forget a lot of what we read, hear or see when there’s too much to take in.

This means that online training content needs to compete with other stimuli in a way that makes it noticeable and memorable. To do this, you’ll need to concentrate on designing training content that’s novel, and desirably difficult. Because the things that are most unusual, and most challenging, tend to get the most attention.

So, whether you’re developing text, multimedia or other types of content, make sure they’re set at a difficulty level that pushes learners beyond their comfort zone. Then, repeat content, but in new and interesting ways. For example, provide a graphic summary of content that was first explained in a video. This kind of novelty releases dopamine in the brain, kind of like a “gimme more” neurotransmitter for learners.

5. Incorporate Self-Explanation And Teaching Into Assignments

Some of the latest research has helped us to understand that people learn more through engaging with information, than passively consuming it [5]. More specifically, self-explanation has been uncovered as a powerful tool for learning in the 21st century.

The process of self-explanation helps learners to identify what they don’t know, what they do know, and how new information builds on their existing knowledge or previous experiences. But that’s not all. While Instructor-Led Training is often necessary, learners actually learn through teaching, too.

Learners who spend time teaching others what they’ve learned tend to develop a deeper understanding of concepts and retain information better, than those who spend the same time using traditional study methods.

So, when designing assignments, ask questions that challenge learners to explain concepts in their own words. This could include wiki assignments or video assignments, where learners are asked to summarize information or develop an argument around specific content. Their peers can then assess and score their assignments.

6. Create Emotionally-Driven Content

It turns out that emotions aren’t just important for personal development, but professional development, too. A 2018 study on the learning benefits of teaching [6], discovered that the types of training materials that engage learners’ feelings are the most likely to lead to deep learning and retention.

Now, developing emotionally-driven content might sound impossible. But there are actually a few simple tips that will turn your eLearning course into a more personal experience.

For example, for training content types with text, include headings and subheadings that inspire or spark emotional interest. For videos and graphics, use images that are relatable and powerful in their meaning. And use the word “you” in as many content types as possible, to make the learner feel personally involved in the learning journey.


Survey after survey tells us that, today, people want to learn. Nay, they need to learn. Opportunities for personal and professional development keep them happy, hard-working employees. Nevertheless, the time-poor world we live in means that real, deep learning only takes place when the experience is convenient, relevant and personal.

So, take some time to reflect on the training content types your learners are currently being offered. Then, consider how you might adopt insights from this article to create or deliver them differently for maximum learning and retention in the 21st century.


[1] Knoll, A. R., Otani, H. , Skeel, R. L. and Van Horn, K. R. (2017), Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information. Br J Psychol, 108: 544-563. doi:10.1111/bjop.12214

[2] Martin, L., Mills, C., D'Mello, S. K., & Risko, E. F. (2018). Re-watching lectures as a study strategy and its effect on mind wandering. Experimental Psychology, 65(5), 297-305.

[3] Shana K.Carpenter & Alexander R.Toftness (2017). The effect of prequestions on learning from video presentations. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(1), 104-109.

[4] Liu, Z. (2005) Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years. Journal of Documentation, 61(6), 700-712.

[5] Bisra, K., Liu, Q., Nesbit, J.C. et al. Educ Psychol Rev (2018) 30: 703. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-018-9434-x

[6] Koh, A.W.L., Lee, S.C., & Lim, S.W.H. (2018). The learning benefits of teaching: A retrieval practice hypothesis. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 32(3), 401-410.

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