Skip to main content


In 2020, the world as we know it changed: governments around the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by issuing shelter-in-place mandates and ordering non-essential businesses closed to prevent the further spread of the virus. Millions of people quarantined themselves in their homes and worked remotely, some for the first time.

In the age of “social distancing,” workplace training has also definitively moved to the virtual space, with instructors delivering content both synchronously and asynchronously. But taking training online isn’t as simple as reading a slide deck aloud to webinar participants while they browse social media. After all, “the job of the training professional is more than just presenting information to the learner, but also involves guiding the learner’s cognitive processing of the material during learning” (Clark & Mayer, 2016). In this article, I’ll share some evidence-based, research-proven best practices for re-imagining in-person training as online, synchronous learning that helps foster that ever-important cognitive processing.

Recommendation 1. Understand Relevant Architectures

Before moving instruction online, it’s important to think about what that content will consist of and how it will be structured. There are three primary online learning architectures that vary based on instructional goals (Clark & Mayer, 2016):

  1. Receptive, also called passive learning, which has low behavioral engagement and is primarily used for information acquisition. An example of this is new hire training, where the learners are not participating in the training but rather passively consuming information. If the instructional goal is lower on Bloom’s Taxonomy -- requiring students to simply remember a fact or basic concept -- then a receptive architecture would be appropriate.

  2. Directive, which has medium behavioral engagement and is often used for procedural training, like software skills. This type of architecture guides learning in a step-by-step manner and often teaches someone how to do something.

  3. Guided discovery, which has high behavioral engagement and is used to construct knowledge that can be used to perform strategic training goals, such as consultative selling. This type of learning often asks learners to troubleshoot problems, requiring a deep understanding of a subject; instruction often centers around why something is done.

If the instructional goal is simply to inform, then a receptive architecture may be appropriate. It’s more likely, though, that the goal of the training is to teach someone how or why to do something; a directive or guided discovery approach may be more appropriate in these scenarios.

Researchers have demonstrated that guided discovery has a tremendous impact on learners’ long-term retention and is a proven methodology for enhancing strategic learning transfer, but this architecture places a huge burden on learners’ mental load (Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga, 2011). On the other end of the behavioral engagement continuum, receptive lessons are used most frequently for training where the goal is simply to inform (Clark & Mayer, 2016); however, for learning to occur in the absence of behavioral engagement, learners must be psychologically engaged -- meaning the content delivered must capture, and keep, their attention.

One architecture is not inherently better than another; each one has its purpose and its benefits and should be carefully selected based on the training goals in mind.

Recommendation 2. Facilitate Active Knowledge Construction

Once the dominant architecture is selected based on the learning goals, active knowledge construction can be facilitated using appropriate sequences and structures.

Receptive architecture uses text, graphics, and video as instructional methods that stimulate psychological activity in the absence of behavioral activity; this is a passive learning style that requires very little of the learner except the consumption and recall of specific information. If a trainer delivers a slide deck or video to a learner and asks them to take an assessment that simply measures information retention, this is considered passive or receptive learning. The design of that information needs to support generative processing of information and reduce extraneous cognitive load. Most e-learning content uses a receptive architecture.

The directive approach generally follows a sequence of explanation -> example -> question -> feedback and incorporates highly structured practice opportunities designed to guide learning in a step-by-step manner (Clark & Mayer, 2016). This architecture is suitable for learners who are new to the content and skills; knowledge construction is promoted by interactivity and immediate feedback. By leveraging virtual learning tools to encourage interactivity, instructional designers, trainers, and instructors can facilitate this directive approach in a synchronous environment.

Effective guided discovery uses authentic work problems and asks learners to perform tasks or make decisions while receiving guidance, engaging learners both behaviorally and psychologically. While many instructional design professionals feel challenged to deliver guided discovery learning online, it is possible to do so effectively, especially with smaller groups of learners. From an andragogical perspective, guided discovery learning facilitates participants’ development of the cognitive scaffolding needed, resulting in much deeper understanding of a topic. Successful guided discovery in the workplace involves three guidelines (Clark & Mayer, 2016):

  1. Instruction should be focused the explicit teaching of relevant skills

  2. Lessons should be designed around real-world work tasks and problems that provide context for those skills

  3. Social learning strategies, such as instructor modeling and student collaboration, should be used to practice these skills in the real-world contexts

Recommendation 3. Leverage Collaboration Wisely

Researchers generally agree that collaboration has the potential to improve individual learning, and technologies in the modern age fully support this type of group work (Clark & Mayer, 2016). There are several evidence-based principles that can be applied to effectively take advantage of the benefits of collaborative learning:

  1. Consider collaborative assignments for challenging tasks. Researchers have found that collaborative learning is most effective when the task is “sufficiently demanding” (Kirschner, Kirschner, & Janssen, 2011). Group work can be significantly beneficial when learners’ understanding of a topic is relatively low; however, with highly skilled and knowledgeable learners, researchers found that collaboration introduced more friction and actually detracted from learners’ performance.

  2. Leverage synchronous and asynchronous events to achieve instructional goals. Even for synchronous events, asynchronous individual assignments before or after the training can be beneficial. Clark & Mayer (2016) recommend that synchronous sessions are optimal when high completion rates are essential and collaboration is beneficial; asynchronous technologies should be used when activities are best completed individually at an individual pace.

  3. Use collaborative tool features that optimize team processes and products. By leveraging synchronous and asynchronous communication methods, like chat and discussion forums, learners can articulate theories, share new information, and integrate theories from others.

  4. Maximize social presence in online communities. This virtual space requires that the instructor intentionally manages their social presence. To do this, researchers (Sung & Mayer, 2012) had several recommendations: instructors should give timely responses; share beliefs and values related to the course domain; maintain an open environment; and refer to learners by name. These may seem like obvious suggestions, but they can be easily overlooked by trainers who are juggling a large, online, virtual class.

Go Forth!

Synchronous online training brings many challenges. With these challenges, however, several opportunities emerge: to rethink the instructional architecture, to facilitate active knowledge construction in new ways, and to leverage collaborative learning. By using the recommendations above, you can build an online learning experience that’s engaging, instructional, and effective.


Clark, R.C. & Mayer, R.E. (2016). e-Learning and the Science of Instruction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Kirschner, P.A., Kirschner, F., & Janssen, J. (2014). The collaboration principle in multimedia learning. In R.E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (2nd ed.; pp. 547-575). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). Cognitive load theory. New York: Springer.

Sung, E. & Mayer, R.E. (2012). Five facets of social presence in online distance education. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 1738-1747.