Applying confidence based learning

Terry Erdle of CompTIA outlines how confidence-based learning could help online training fulfil its potential and deliver better results

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Applying confidence based learning CompTIA has developed new approaches to online learning to improve success, says Erdle.
By  Terry Erdle Published  September 14, 2014

Online learning tools are changing the face of training, providing improved accessibility, flexibility and mobility. MOOCs, (Massive Online Open Courses) the poster child of online learning, often receive thousands of registrations. However, there is an alarming disparity between enrolment and completion numbers (the average MOOC completion rate has been as low as 7%). Clearly, online learning is failing to live up to its potential, or prove as effective as has been hoped.

Recognising the need for a more effective online learning environment, CompTIA, the ICT Industry Trade Association, applied research on how elements of neuroscience and confidence-based learning can be used to inform and improve online training tools. By drawing from neurobiology, cognitive psychology and game studies research, we gained insight into the molecular and biochemical processes at work during learning and memory formation. The IT industry needed confidence-based learning methods to help people absorb, retain and recall IT skills.


Priming is the method of providing trainees with a preview of the content to be learned through a short set of questions and visual cues. Rooted in the principles of neurobiology and cognitive psychology, priming prevents trainees becoming overwhelmed by a deluge of new information, as they perhaps might be in a ‘broadcast’ model like a MOOC. By getting a taster of what is to come, not only are trainees prepared for what they are about to learn, they have a better chance of recognising and engaging with it when it does come up. This increased engagement in turn leads to better retention of knowledge.


The opposite of ‘cramming’, spacing is geared toward maximising long-term retention of training material. Most long-term memories aren’t instantly formed; rather memory must undergo a consolidation process — called synaptic consolidation — before it can be remembered for longer than just a few moments. Spacing promotes this consolidation process by introducing information to learners over intervals of time, giving trainees’ brains the chance to covert new information into long-term memory.

The Testing Effect

Studying and testing in tandem offers greater retention than studying on its own, by training candidates in recollection as well as their course material. Memories are not formed in a vacuum. Associations between elements such as colour, sound and emotion are often as much a part of the memory as the information itself. For the same reason that retracing your steps can help recalling the location of a misplaced item, it is important to create learning conditions in which information can be recalled when it matters, such as during an exam or in a work setting.

Monitoring motivation

Trainee engagement is the key to them progressing through and completing a course. Research, particularly around video gaming, tells us that dopamine levels play an important role in engaging learners. Incorporating key motivational triggers often found in gaming, and providing a sense of progression, risk, achievement and curiosity, regulates users’ dopamine levels, without overwhelming them. These regulated dopamine levels create a positive feedback loop, which encourages further progression and success. Immediate feedback also allows trainees to quickly learn from mistakes and ultimately, make it less likely that they will abandon the course.


There is a limit to the amount of information the human brain can store in short-term memory. After reaching this threshold, old information must be forgotten for new information to be considered; this is called the learner’s working memory capacity. By analysing data (such as time taken to answer a question and how often a given response is selected), we can determine when users are approaching their working memory capacity, and when time must be given for synaptic consolidation to take place. A system that responds to each individual’s own learning pace prevents trainees becoming overwhelmed on subjects they are unfamiliar with and bored on ones they are well versed in. This makes them much more likely to absorb and retain information long-term, as well as improving their chances of completing the course.

The way that each person learns is slightly different, and the way that we learn online differs again. By personalising online tools, training providers can improve the effectiveness and entertainment value of training. As such,we are launching a new IT learning platform, CompTIA CertMaster,which incorporates all of the research-informed learning methods outlined above. With CompTIA CertMaster, students and working professionals receive a scientifically customised learning experience, allowing trainees to study at the right pace for them and improving their ability to retain information for use in an exam or workplace setting. CompTIA CertMaster uses a confidence-based answer algorithm and allows learners to indicate their level of confidence in their answers, providing a heightened learning engagement. By avoiding the ‘race to the finish’ mindset of traditional online learning tools, trainees can quickly master the information they need to learn, recall the right information at the right time and perform with confidence.

Terry Erdle is executive vice president, skills certification and learning at CompTIA. See more at:

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