The Importance of Surprises in eLearning

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Magic rabbit out of a hatIt’s a fact of life that we humans get used to things quite quickly. We drive to work on autopilot, not remembering how we got from A to B. We zone out while listening to the news. We struggle to concentrate when revising.

Why is this? Well, research suggests that it’s because we are more likely to remember things that are novel, i.e. unexpected, surprising, new or unusual. We’d remember our drive to work if something new or exciting happened – like if the daffodils had suddenly sprouted, or there was a road closure, or we had a near miss.


The hippocampus is one of the most important brain regions when it comes to discovering, processing and storing new sensory information. New or exciting stimuli activate the hippocampus more than familiar stimuli, which is why we remember novel experiences more easily than everyday occurrences.

brain cognitive benefitsHere’s how it works (be sure to head to Scientific American for the whole story in more detail):

The hippocampus compares incoming information with stored knowledge. If there is a disparity, the hippocampus sends a pulse of dopamine to the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area. These, in turn, send dopamine back to the hippocampus.

You can probably guess what happens next: the excess dopamine creates stronger connections, leading to long-term memory of the event which triggered the reaction.

Novelty in Learning

When it comes to learning, we want to be sure that learners remember what they’re being taught. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? If learners don’t recall information then the whole training programme was a waste of time and money.

Therefore in order to achieve a greater understanding via improved recall, it’s important to sprinkle surprises – or novel experiences – into eLearning modules and online learning platforms.

Gamification in Learning

Gamification is one way to do this. ‘Surprising’ learners with badges, points and achievements will trigger this dopamine reaction, creating links in the brain which will help us remember information. But that’s not the only effect of dopamine – it’s also the neurotransmitter which gives us a buzz and lets us enjoy certain activities. More about that in a future blog post.

eLearning Surprises

In addition to gamification, learners can be surprised in other ways, too. Take, for instance, the use of humour or inventive storytelling in eLearning modules. Rather than being faced with a boring, standard scenario, an interesting or ‘novel’ scenario will capture learners’ attention and get them to remember what they learnt. Let’s see how this might work:

Boring scenario:

Mr Salesman knows that needs to sell his product at £340 to meet the profit margins. He’s struggling to get the customer to agree to anything higher than £310. What tactics should he use to make the sale?

SupermanSuperduperfun scenario:

In order to keep saving the day, Superman needs a new superhero suit. His is pretty tattered and torn from all his exertions. He needs £340 for his new suit but the Mayor is only willing to offer him £310. What tactics should he use to persuade the Mayor to give him more?

Can you see the difference? Thinking in terms of an unknown, faceless salesman might be more relevant to the job role, but learning about sales practices by putting yourself in Superman’s shoes is much more enjoyable and interesting!

Want to find out more about how to get learners truly invested and engaged in their training? Download our free research paper by filling out the form below!

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