Listening isn't learning...

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Written by Isobel Rimmer on 1 April 2014 in Features

Isobel Rimmer explains how to make the most of webinars

I was nine when I went into Miss Blake’s class. Every Monday morning she would read out a list of 20 words for us to learn. She would then write them up on the blackboard – where they stayed all week. We copied them down (using fountain pens) and were tested every Friday. In two years, I never got one wrong.

Where do we go to learn today? Webinars, e-learning, blogs, YouTube, – increasingly we’re going online to search out new ideas and techniques and we’re using WebEx and broadcasts to share information and updates. But listening isn’t, on its own, learning and maybe it’s time to remind ourselves of what we can do to help people learn in a virtual world.

Here are my top tips to help you and your teams learn more effectively:

  • know yourself (and help others to understand themselves better)
  • create the climate
  • practise (with feedback)
  • test yourself – and teach someone else
  • just do it.

Know yourself (and help others to understand themselves better)

I first did my Learning Styles1 in the 1980s and it was a revelation. It made complete sense and helped me recognise not only how best to learn but also how to help others take on board information when they were different to me.

The 80-statement questionnaire is as good as ever. When I’m developing online materials, I’m much more aware of the need to provide structure and logic so people know where they are; enough detail in the workbook for those that need it and still provide interaction and involvement for those who want it.

And it’s harder to do that online so I have to work at it more – I can’t rely on personality, group feedback or the energy of the participants as I can in a classroom setting. I have to be more structured and have a script – my timings have to be spot on.

You may be familiar with Howard Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences – he identified seven different types of intelligence and showed how they guide the way we learn and process information. You can do a free test online (check out amongst others). And again, you can think about how you create online learning opportunities that will give people the time and space to reflect, the human interaction they may crave, or the logic and structure that works for them.

Just a little time spent understanding yourself and helping others to understand themselves better can go a long way.

Create the climate

As an online facilitator and moderator and producer of others’ programmes, I am amazed by the volume of background noise when people log on in the virtual world. We spend the first few minutes of nearly every session rapidly muting people out. If I can hear their background noise, how can they concentrate at their desk or workstation?

To help your people learn, create a climate that is conducive to learning. Is there a quiet space where they can attend a webinar or e-learning session? Can you use noise cancelling headphones so you’re not distracted by phones, conversations or office banter? Can we expect someone to attend a learning session if they’re on a customer site and not able to talk or contribute?

Just listening isn’t learning – we need to create an environment in which people can interact, ask questions or have a go at an exercise or technique. There’s a difference between watching a ten-minute YouTube film and participating in a 60- or 90-minute webinar. If you were spending £150 or £200 to attend a webinar online, would you allow that noise to go on?

Creating the climate means eliminating distractions – how can you learn if email keeps popping up? How can you concentrate and focus if you’re texting or on your mobile? Make sure that your learners are in a place where they can’t be distracted – for their benefit.

Make it easy for people to download materials or a workbook before they join a session and for them to complete exercises in as you go along. The simple act of writing your notes during a training session will reinforce learning, so encourage people to do that.

A method that I was taught to help learn when going through materials is SQ3R – it stands for survey, question, read, recite and review. Read the materials carefully, ask questions in each section to make sure you understand what it means, read and make notes, recite out loud (yes, it works!) and finally go over it again and review to make sure it makes complete sense.

Practise (with feedback)

They say that practise makes perfect. Actually, practise makes habit and, in the wise words of Monty Roberts (the original horse whisperer and a great teacher), “when your technique is good, repetition is your greatest friend. When your technique is poor, repetition is your greatest enemy”. There is a wonderful video of Roberts loading a difficult horse into a trailer – it’s all about technique (his is fantastic and he’s been working on it for years), having the right tools (in his case the dually halter) and repetition. It’s at and is worth a detour.

If you’ve helped to create the right climate for learning, opportunities to practise will follow more easily. How can someone ‘have a go’ in an online session if he’s working in a noisy office or people are listening in to what he’s doing?

I would practise my spelling every Thursday night and knew I would get ‘feedback’ (although we didn’t use that word) from my mother if I got any of the spellings wrong. I would not be rebuked – far from it – but given an opportunity to get it right and have another go. Repetition was my greatest friend. All part of the learning and encouragement process.

Make sure that you are building in opportunities for your online learners to get feedback. There is good evidence that even mature learners can develop skills with practise. Virginia Penhune has produced some interesting data at her lab at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. During a challenging test of hand-eye co-ordination, nearly 1,000 volunteers of all age groups learned to juggle over a series of six training sessions. As you might expect, the senior citizens aged 60 to 80 began with some hesitation but, with encouragement and feedback, they soon caught up with the 30-year-olds and, by the end of the trials, all the adults were juggling more confidently than the five- to ten-year-olds.

So you can teach old dogs new tricks.

Test yourself (and teach someone else)

We were tested every week by Miss Blake – first thing Friday morning, after assembly.

There is strong evidence that, by taking some form of test, we significantly increase our potential to learn and apply new skills. And, of course, if motivation is high (as in passing your driving test), we work hard to pass the test.

I’ve started to build in simple techniques – an acronym or a step process using a poll or test – to a live webinar. It’s nothing new but it helps to reinforce. If you are serious about creating your own tests, take a look at or sites such as Anki, which is about creating new and different ways to test what people have been learning.

Another way to reinforce learning is to get people to train others on what they’ve learned. If you are paying people to attend a webinar, they’re on the payroll whether it’s a free session or a paid-for one, ask them to train up others afterwards. With Masterclass public webinars, we allow access for several weeks afterwards. You can attend live, watch the recording and then train colleagues at the next team meeting.

There is some great data on this produced by Sean d’Souza at He tells us that learners retain approximately:

  • 90 per cent of what they learn when they teach someone else/use immediately
  • 75 per cent of what they learn when they practise what they learned
  • 50 per cent of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion
  • 30 per cent of what they learn when they see a demonstration
  • 20 per cent of what they learn from audio-visual
  • 10 per cent of what they learn from reading
  • 5 per cent of what they learn from a lecture.

And why is it that this method of teaching others is the most effective? It’s because we have to use it, do it and work with it. We have to learn from our mistakes and correct our actions. We learn how to do something because we can’t explain it if we don’t know it well.

If you can ride a bicycle, you learned by making mistakes. You learned by falling off and getting back on. So if online learning becomes a lecture – albeit a colourful, engaging, visually attractive and interesting lecture – with little or no opportunity to test, apply or put learning into practise, you’ll be lucky if people can remember even 5 per cent of it.

As adults, have we become a little bit frightened about making mistakes, looking foolish, not able to do things perfectly first time? We should encourage not only a climate that allows people to learn but one in which people can try and fail, they can get better at doing stuff – over time. We often have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and of the people we train. It takes time, practise and feedback to get better at something.

Just do it…

And finally – just do it. Do we hold back because we want to do it perfectly? Do we limit our learning because of a fear of stepping outside our comfort zone? One of the biggest differences between how adults and children learn is, according to Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this: “Adults think so much more about what they are doing. Children just copy what they see.”

And how about this as evidence that support and encouragement may be the answer to make us more effective: “As we get older, we lose our confidence, and I’m convinced that has a big impact on performance,” says Wulf. To test the assumption, she trained a small group of people to pitch a ball. While half were given no encouragement, she offered the others a sham test, rigged to demonstrate that their abilities were above average. They learned to pitch on target with much greater accuracy than those who didn’t get the encouragement and ego boost.

As we get older, we need to make sure our brains stay in good shape too. Arthur Kramer has been working with senior citizens in Illinois. He worked with a group and encouraged them to take three 40-minute walks a week, over a year. Imaging their brains before and after, he found that the hippocampi had expanded, perhaps through the growth of new brain cells. Either way, their connectivity was as good as a 30-year-old’s and they were in better physical shape.

If you find this area interesting, check out this paper by Judy Willis, a trained neurologist who moved into teaching:

There are so many great ways to learn and so many exciting new ways to get training out to people. I still get a tingle of excitement when I’m running a webinar with people attending from the other side of the world. Online training is a fantastic way to learn but, as trainers, we have a duty to make it easy for people to learn – not just leave them to listen.



About the author

Isobel Rimmer is a founder of Masterclass. She can be contacted via


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