Virtual Classroom 101: How To Preserve Knowledge Retention

Switching to a virtual classroom from classroom-based instructor-led training (ILT) may change the learning experience, but it doesn’t have to negatively impact the learning outcomes. However, you need to intentionally adapt your content and delivery to a virtual classroom environment.

Doing so starts with learning about the obstacles to learning that are inherent in the virtual classroom. The good news is that most obstacles can be easily managed! All it takes is a little planning and well-thought-out execution.   

In this article, we’ll define ILT and virtual classrooms, explain why knowledge retention could suffer, and offer techniques to help preserve knowledge retention.


What Are Instructor-Led Trainings And Virtual Classrooms?

Converting In-Person Training for Virtual LearningFirst, let’s clarify the modalities (modes of delivering training) we’re talking about. Instructor-led training (ILT) is when an instructor facilitates a training session for a group of learners or an individual. It is synchronous and collaborative, happens in real-time, and occurs in person. We consider a virtual classroom to be any space that allows for remote, real-time, synchronous learning. The key difference is that one is in-person, while the other is not. 

Learning professionals make the switch to virtual classrooms to save costs and accommodate a remote audience, whether they’re remote due to geographic dispersion or a global pandemic (like that would ever happen!).

Virtual classrooms could take the form of:

  • Webinars – Online through video conferencing
  • One-to-One – One learner to one instructor
  • Small-Group – A small group of learners with one instructor in a classroom setting
  • Lecture – A large group of learners with one instructor
  • Workshop – Hands-on training

Virtual Instructor-led Training (VILT) refers specifically to any training initiatives that transfer the traditional classroom dynamic — an instructor or facilitator guiding learners — to a virtual setting. To summarize, all virtual classroom solutions bring a remote audience together in real-time.

READ MORE: Converting Instructor-Led Training To Virtual Learning


What Are The Obstacles To Knowledge Retention In Virtual Classrooms?

Ultimately, the goal of training is to help your employees gain knowledge and develop skills to do their jobs effectively and efficiently. That goal doesn’t change when you switch to a virtual classroom, but it does face more challenges.

Learning cannot happen if employees struggle to process information, to begin with. The remote, real-time aspects of virtual classrooms can — if not accounted for — disrupt information processing. Here’s how…


Additional Distractions Outside The Virtual Classroom

Learners face additional distractions in a remote, real-time setting. Instructors can control only the technical aspects of a virtual classroom; they can’t account for every distraction each learner experiences in their physical surroundings — emails, texts, children and pets in need of attention, trying to make lunch, and so on. Those distractions interfere with your learners’ ability to focus on the information you’re presenting.


Drop-off In Nonverbal Communication

Furthermore, virtual classrooms — aside from those that are strictly video calls — aren’t great for nonverbal communication. In ILT scenarios, instructors can observe head nods, lost looks on faces, and more nonverbal cues that help them to perceive the degree to which learners are getting the information. Without those cues, instructors have to develop new ways to ensure learners aren’t being left behind. 


Limited Opportunities For Application

The final step in processing information is recognition — the aha moment. This is when a learner thinks, “Now I get it; this is how I will use this information.” In ILT, this often comes through group discussion or role-playing. A virtual classroom, meanwhile, offers fewer organic opportunities for learners to apply what they’ve learned.

Those are the main obstacles to knowledge retention in a virtual classroom. But don’t worry! You can address them.  


How To Help Your Remote Learners To Retain Knowledge

There are some simple adjustments you can make to overcome the challenges presented in virtual classrooms


Keep It Short, And Address “WIIFM?”


The easiest way to nullify the problem of additional distractions is to limit the length of the presentation. Truly, less is more. Another tactic that works is intentionally asking people to be fully engaged, especially if you focus on the specific return on their investment. For example, instead of inviting learners to attend a class about a new process, ask them to give you their undivided attention for 20 minutes and in return, you will provide them with insights and information that will save them hours of time and frustration.

Imagine if you had never seen an email before. You might not be willing to invest time in a course about a new way to communicate with people, but you might be willing to engage for 20 minutes if you knew that in return, you would never need to search your office looking for a stamp again or that you could have a way to communicate with people across the globe.

The more applicable the benefit is to the learner, the more likely they will be able to pay attention. This strategy all comes back to answering the critical question on learners’ minds: What’s in it for me?

Read More: Training: What’s In It For Me?


Use Your “Parking Lot”

The key to driving cognition is focus. Focus focus focus. Face-to-face conversations allow for sidebars and tangents, allowing you to check-in with learners to see how well they understand the material. 

Some platforms have tools to let you create notes that the whole class can see. These types of tools are often referred to as parking lots. They can become places for instructors and learners to brainstorm as a group, take notes, and write questions. Instructors can also use the parking lot to stick high-level takeaways that stay visible to the audience throughout the session, ensuring that if learners only remember one thing, they remember the most important thing.

Ultimately, instructors must set expectations for how participants will use the parking lot.


How To Provide Opportunities For Application In The Virtual Classroom

The aha moment, when the learners recognize how they can apply the information, should not be sacrificed just because the training is done in a virtual classroom. Instructors can work in meaningful interactions and make sure that there are ways for audience members to communicate with each other. Ask specific questions. Implement knowledge checks. Challenge learners to offer examples of how they plan on applying what they have learned. And be sure to respond! Listen to what they say and give constructive feedback if necessary. 

If you do plan to ask learners to explain how they’ll practice what they’ve learned, make sure you’re familiar with the daily tasks of their job. People process information quicker when they see themselves in the story; if they share an example you’re not familiar with, you may think they didn’t get it, when in reality they did.

Training Tip: If you’re looking to provide opportunities for a more thorough application, you may want to consider implementing a blended learning program. Perhaps a post-session eLearning module, complete with an assessment, is what you need. Or, maybe you desire a virtual reality (VR) session where learners can literally practice applying the material in a risk-free space.

READ MORE: How To Develop A Blended Learning Program Training


Consider The Whole Process

By making the adjustments discussed above, you can guard against the knowledge retention pitfalls inherent in a virtual classroom. But to really make the material stick, instructional designers must consider the whole learning process. This includes structuring your information to build on prior learning. Use callbacks or links to information that have been presented in another format. But beyond that, instructors must make use of the time before the virtual classroom, the time in it, and the time after it.


Before The Session

Consider what you can do before the virtual classroom to prepare the learners and build engagement. To ensure learners are engaged in the session, you need to build their investment in the learning experience intentionally. One best practice that is easy to implement is to begin the learning process before the session starts. Again, this could take the form of a blended learning program, or it could simply be a bit of pre-work, such as reading an article or watching a video. The key is to get the juices flowing.


Beginning The Session

Start sessions with a brief gathering activity to help pull the group together and relax your learners a bit. Because time is short, most traditional classroom icebreakers do not make suitable virtual activities.

Instead, try using the time between the students’ login and the session’s scheduled start time by posting a question that can be answered with a single word. Ask students to post their responses using the chat function. 

This quick activity serves several purposes: 

  • You can gauge learners’ comfort with the technology
  • Learners can begin to interact with each other in a way that can feel less threatening than being “called on” to answer


During The Session

Learner engagement is critical to successful knowledge retention in a virtual classroom. Most experts agree that there should be some engagement activity every 3-5 minutes. Interactions should be a combination of the learners interacting with the instructor and the learners interacting with each other by using the break out session functionality available on most virtual classroom platforms. 

After students interact with each other, make sure that there is time to close the learning loop by inviting each small group to share their thoughts on the material covered.


After The Session

Follow-up is hugely important in your efforts to help learners to retain knowledge from the virtual classroom. Send learners the notes, and invite people to address the issues that were posted in the parking lot. Depending on the complexity of the information, you may want to follow-up as much as three times:

  • Once immediately after to reinforce the message
  • Once several days later to build on the learning
  • Once several weeks after to nudge application

Focus on sending a job aid that covers the high points of the session (like the main takeaways from the parking lot), along with a list of related resources or links. And of course, encourage your employees to discuss the material from the virtual classroom. There’s often no more organic way to learn than through discussion with peers.


Now, What Have You Retained From This Article? 

We hope your high-level takeaway is what we started off stating: A virtual classroom does not have to sacrifice knowledge retention.

By keeping things short and relevant, utilizing the “parking lot,” providing room for application, and engaging learners before, during, and after the session, you can create a virtual classroom environment that preserves knowledge retention and is favorable for it. If you are looking to utilize online learning through virtual classrooms, eLearning, VILT, or more, contact our team of experts today to help get started.

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