The RETAIN Model for Creating Effective Courses
Instructional Design

The RETAIN Model for Creating Effective Courses

Faculty and training managers have the best interests and intentions in mind to develop learning programs for their learners. With the widespread use of platform independent eLearning, instructors scramble to convert their existing courses’ content into online learning material.

Unfortunately, most trainers and faculty believe that the deployment of powerpoint and pdf notes on a learning management system equals the development of eLearning content.

This is a typical misconception; the use of traditional learning material in an online learning environment. eLearning is more than that. eLearning is all about generating immersiveLearning environments. It is an experience that stimulates almost all five senses of the human brain. The use of multimedia tools and interactivity in eLearning engages all types of learners regardless of their multiple intelligence orientation. The goal of this article is to explain the hard to point nuances that differentiate traditional content from eLearning content.

When you think of eLearning, think of the word “constructivism” or learning by doing. This term immediately converts your lesson into a game! It is not uncommon to address eLearning content as games, especially when game-like elements like scores and time-based assessments are added to the program.

When you develop eLearning content, think of guidelines that can ensure that you have 100% eLearning content ready to be launched. The RETAIN model, developed in 2008, aptly describes distinguishing features in an eLearning program and their implementation level. The RETAIN model, developed by Gunter, Kenny & Vick, (2008) is based on several components:

  • Keller’s ARCS theory
  • Gagnés nine events of instruction in relation with Bloom’s learning taxonomy
  • Gameplay and playability principles tied to intellectual engagement with learning
  • Piaget’s concept of adaptation (including assimilation and accommodation) and schemes, i.e. some kind of constructivism

With a comprehensive model such as RETAIN, you cannot go wrong when evaluating your eLearning content. Regardless of the eLearning type: simulation game, serious game, branching scenario or simple interactivity, the RETAIN model will assure you that you are on the right track. Faculty and trainers, regardless of their backgrounds can take advantage of this model to convert their current courses into eLearning content.

What does RETAIN stand for? R = Relevance, E = Embedding, T = Transfer, A = Adaptation, I = Immersion, N = Naturalization.

Before we get into the details of each word, make sure you check for these elements in your eLearning course. In short, check whether each element is present or absent in your eLearning program.

Next, check for the degree at which these elements exist in your program. Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3? Hopefully not Level 0!! The goal of your newly crossed-over traditional content is to emulate the work environment of the learner by appealing to senses.

eLearning is more about “showing” than “telling”. It’s amazing how time and effort effective, teaching becomes when eLearning environments use the correct images and multimedia.


Presenting materials in a way relevant to learners, their needs, and their learning styles, and ii) Ensuring the instructional units are relevant to one another so that the elements link together and build upon previous work.

Crossing over from the Traditional

If your content begins with a vignette that describes a real world problem, know that you are on your way to a great start! Scaffold your content by organizing it according to its level of difficulty. This allows learners to build their knowledge logically.

Another great tip here is to add pre-requisite material (briefly). This is an added value in eLearning that enables instructors to prepare the learners for new information by revising previous knowledge.


Assessing how closely the academic content is coupled with the fantasy/story content where fantasy refers to the narrative structure, storylines, player experience, dramatic structure, fictive elements, etc.

Crossing over from the Traditional

Try using local business names and addresses to help learners “situate” themselves in a problem scenario. A familiar setting creates a sense of realism and excitement. Transfer of learning is also immediate. This leads to greater satisfaction in the adult learner.


How the player can use previous knowledge and apply it in other areas.

Crossing over from the Traditional

Apart from creating real life scenarios, create characters that impact the scenario. Provide plenty of options to choose from. This creates a sense of control over the learning situation.


A change in behavior as a consequence of transfer.

Crossing over from the Traditional

An effective strategy to ensure transfer is to provide opportunity for reflection, summarizing key facts and recalling information. This is developed using reinforcement exercises like Matching, True or False, Sequence and decision making. Also, simulation activities created using authoring tools like Adobe Captivate take learners closer to performance.


The player intellectually investing in the context of the game.

Crossing over from the Traditional

Create challenging quizzes that provide evidence of learning, at short content intervals, instead of longer ones. Formative assessment (assessment based on one module or a part of a lengthy chapter) is more effective than a comprehensive summative assessment.


The development of habitual and spontaneous use of information derived within the game.

Crossing over from the Traditional

One drawback of eLearning environment is its potential for “cognitive overload”. This is the overwhelming feeling experienced by the learner when they are over-stimulated with text, auditory and visual information. Make this phenomenon work to your advantage.

Provide information in multiple formats: dialogues between characters, tool tip when an item in the scenario is clicked, as hiding information behind appropriate images and as clues to preceding information. This will maintain the interest level of your learner. They will be too absorbed for distractions! Moreover, any unclear concept can be replayed multiple times.


The RETAIN model is often the main evaluation or development criteria behind any eLearning program. By ensuring that your newly crossed-over content has all the elements of the RETAIN model, you can be confident that your learning program will satisfy the adult learner in corporate or higher education setting.

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