Will Thalheimer: Does eLearning Work? What the Scientific Research Says!

by Mirjam Neelen & Janet Benson – Learning Experience Designers

What does the scientific research tell us about elearning effectiveness, particularly as it compares with classroom instruction? These are the questions that Will Thalheimer examines in his fresh-from-the-press report. But wait. Why would we even ask these questions? Don’t we already know that eLearning works? After all, it’s used abundantly; tons of people use it every day. Thalheimer rightly says that eLearning, on the other hand, has a reputation for being boring and ineffective and wildly hyped by vendors and eLearning evangelists. So, in summary: No, it’s not clear if it works and it’s not clear when it works, what causes it to work. Do we make sense?

By the way, it’s just awesome that the world of learning professionals can avail of someone like Thalheimer who does all this solid research and then makes it available for free so that we can all benefit from it! Perhaps you can consider hiring him or buying his book to pay him back (and to get more awesomeness!).

We, as learning experience designers at the Learnovate Centre are big advocates of backing everything that we do up with science. Actually, we feel it’s our responsibility. Mind you, Thalheimer’s research includes thousands of scientific studies as his research includes several meta-analyses to find the answer to the two questions.

Comparing eLearning to Traditional Classroom Instruction

Interestingly, based on the five meta-analyses that Thalheimer conducted, he concludes that “eLearning tends to outperform classroom instruction” (p 4). Blended learning creates the largest benefits (so, a mix of classroom and eLearning instruction).

Are you getting excited by this outcome? Don’t be. When diving deeper, it becomes clear that it’s NOT the eLearning that improves learning effectiveness, it’s the LEARNING METHODS that are typically used in eLearning that impact eLearning’s benefits.

Paul A. Kirschner tweeted, in response to Thalheimer’s article, that Clark posed a similar conclusion all the way back in 1983 (also referenced by Thalheimer, by the way), saying that

The best current evidence is that media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition (Clark, 1983, p 445).

Which Learning Methods are Most Effective?

So, why would eLearning outperform classroom instruction and why would blended learning outperform both? One possibility is that eLearning design invites the usage of more effective learning methods. But why then would blended learning be even better? Thalheimer suggests that one reason could be that the eLearning used in blended learning experiences uses more effective learning methods. Perhaps it’s the combination of those effective methods and the comfort of a face-to-face setting? Another option is that, because the research analysed on blended learning didn’t compare the specific learning methods used, so perhaps, coincidentally, the blended learning methods investigated in the research used even more effective learning methods than the learning methods used in the eLearning studies. We’re not sure and Thalheimer doesn’t speculate any further.

So, what are these effective learning methods? Not surprisingly (to us anyway) they include elements such as “providing learnings with realistic practice, spaced repetitions, contextually-meaningful scenarios, and feedback” (p 4). Other articles discuss the richness of eLearning, such as the flipped classroom and mobile learning.

Overall, “realistic decision making and authentic tasks, providing feedback on these activities, and spreading repetitions of these activities over time” (p 10) are hugely beneficial for learning.

Now, please open your ears widely and listen cause what we’re about to say is important.

Learning effectiveness depends on the learning methods, NOT on the ‘delivery’ methods (classroom or eLearning). Classroom instruction can ALSO use these beneficial learning methods and eLearning can FAIL to use these most effective learning methods (and that, as we all know, happens too often).

Comparing Learning Methods in eLearning

From the studies that Thalheimer reviewed for this topic, it becomes clear that there is an enormous variety in eLearning approaches and contexts. For example, solving linear algebra problems or making sense of cerebral haemorrhages. This is critical because, especially in the corporate learning space, the feeling is that eLearnings are just boring, ineffective page turners. Thalheimer’s research shows that eLearning can be used for much more than information dumps or learning trivial tasks (e.g., How to Clean Your Desk on a Friday kind of stuff). At the same time, it becomes clear from Thalheimer’s research that many eLearning applications don’t utilise research-recommended learning methods so therefore the potential is … underutilised.

Other Research Relevant to eLearning

Thalheimer also explores a random sampling of research that focuses on things like simulations, simulation games, feedback, animations, digital games, and so forth. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how he defines eLearning. One could say that simulations and digital games can be part of eLearning as well.  The research on these ‘other’ types of learning tech show that they investigate “learning methods that tend to go beyond those we typically use in classroom instruction” (p 24). Well, we could use them in classroom instruction but we generally don’t. There’s a lot of variability in the research results but we can conclude that learning technologies seem to be, overall, beneficial in supporting learning, though, and this is important, NOT necessarily better than non-tech interventions.

This is What You Need to Remember at All Times!

  • eLearning and classroom instruction produce similar learning results when learning methods are constant.
  • eLearning tends to outperform traditional classroom instruction when no specific effort is made to hold learning methods constant (suggesting that eLearning solutions more easily invite to use more effective learning methods somehow while classroom instruction still relies heavily on relatively ineffective lectures).
  • What matters for learning effectiveness are the learning methods; NOT the modality (e.g., eLearning or classroom).
  • Blended learning tends to outperform classroom learning and eLearning (probably because the eLearning part of the ‘blend’ often uses more effective learning methods).

We are especially excited about this type of research because it helps us to help you to identify and solve your learning challenges. Don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions!

We’ll be waiting for your call.


Clark, R.E., (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247357883_Reconsidering_Research_on_Learning_from_Media

Thalheimer, W., (2017). Does eLearning Work? What the Scientific Research Says! Retrieved from http://willthalheimer.typepad.com/files/does-elearning-work-full-research-report-final.pdf

We’re Hiring – K-12 Pedagogy Specialist

Post: K-12 Pedagogy Specialist
Contract Duration: Specific purpose for length of Learnovate Project
Department: Learnovate Centre, School of Computer Science and Statistics
Salary: Researcher Scale at a point commensurate with qualifications and experience
Closing Date: August 25th 2017


Candidates are invited to apply for the position of Specialist and Researcher, K-12 Pedagogy in the Learning Design Team at the Learnovate Centre. The function of the role is to provide support to Learnovate Centre projects focused on learners in the K-12/schools space. The work will be conducted in collaboration with a dynamic, multi-disciplinary research team with the aim of developing innovative next-generation learning technology which demonstrates real benefits for school age learners.

Principal Duties:

  • Taking ownership of, defining and developing the pedagogical strategy for K-12 research and innovation projects
  • Ongoing engagement with the Learnovate Schools Network, creating and maintaining relationships with the schools
  • Ensuring that research projects demonstrate real learning innovation through:
    • Defining and implementing a pedagogical strategy which is  appropriate  to the context of learners
    • Creating relevant use cases primarily focusing on K-12 school learning contexts
    • Providing pedagogical direction
  • Conducting evaluations/trials to support research projects
  • Communicating and transforming research outputs for industry partners
  • Presenting/reviewing research projects with industry partners
  • Preparing and writing -publications to support the work of the Learnovate Centre
  • Carrying out other pedagogical tasks which may be assigned

Key Requirements:

  • Qualification to PhD level in the field (or relevant industry experience)
  • Experience of classroom teaching at either Primary or Post-primary level
  • Experience with learning technology deployment and use in classroom setting
  • Experience of curriculum/ course design
  • Experience in assessment design (of and for learning)
  • Excellent research and writing skills
  • Proven ability to prioritise own workload and work to exacting deadlines
  • Excellent verbal communication and interpersonal skills
  • Strong team player


  • Experience working in a research-driven working environment
  • Experience of conducting end user trials
  • Experience in designing technology-enhanced learning environments
  • Experience with Design Thinking, LEAN Start Up and/or Agile development

Background to the Post

The Learnovate Centre is an Enterprise Ireland/IDA funded centre of excellence in learning innovation. The centre brings together state of the art research with the real world business problems of our industry partners. The centre aims to develop innovative industry-led learning technology solutions to benefit the Irish EdTech industry.

Department Summary

The School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College Dublin offers a high quality educational experience to undergraduate and postgraduate students along with exceptional research opportunities for professionals in the fields of computer science and statistics. The school is proud of its reputation as an innovative and energetic centre for study and research.

The research interests of the school are wide and varied, ranging from the theoretical to the practical. The schools researchers are at the cutting-edge of their disciplines, working on prestigious research projects with other professionals in their fields, and with access to significant public and private funding and industry support.

Trinity College Dublin

Founded in 1592, Trinity College Dublin is the oldest university in Ireland and one of the older universities of Western Europe. On today’s campus, state-of-the-art libraries, laboratories and IT facilities, stand alongside historic buildings on a city-centre 47-acre campus. Trinity College Dublin is currently ranked 43rd in the top world universities by the Times Higher Education Supplement Global University Rankings 2009 and 13th in Europe. Trinity College Dublin offers a unique educational experience across a range of disciplines in the arts, humanities, engineering, science and human, social and health sciences. As Ireland’s premier university, the pursuit of excellence through research and scholarship is at the heart of a Trinity education. TCD has an outstanding record of publications in high-impact journals, and a track record in winning research funding which is among the best in the country. TCD has developed significant international strength in its research in eight major themes which include globalisation; cancer; genetics; neuroscience; immunology and infection; communications and intelligent systems; nano and materials science as well as Irish culture and the creative arts. TCD aims to become the world reference point in at least one of these areas of research in the next 10 years

Application Procedure

Candidates are asked to submit a covering letter and a full CV to include the names and contact details of 3 referees (email addresses if possible) to:

Owen White, Centre Director

Learnovate Centre, School of Computer Science and Statistics, Trinity College, Dublin

Tel: +353-1-896- 4910

Email: owen.white@learnovatecentre.org

Please note: No expenses will be paid in travelling to interview.