The ICEBERG principles: Learning design for retention

Retention – helping students complete the studies they’ve signed up for – is an essential element of learning design. Open University researchers Jitse van Ameijde, Martin Weller and Simon Cross developed the ICEBERG principles (2015) to highlight seven learning design elements that support retention.

We’ve created a quick guide to the principles and some prompts for applying them. Visit Professor Martin Weller’s blog at to download the full report and to explore his insights into the research.

Learning that is designed for retention should be:

Learning materials are constructively aligned: activities and other materials support assessment, ultimately helping students pass the module.

Design tips
Show how activities and assessments link to learning outcomes.

Where appropriate, minimise friction caused by switching media: this can increase cognitive overload.

Learning activities include opportunities for students to articulate concepts to one another and reflect on them in new contexts. Collaboration also builds connections between students, helping them feel part of a supportive community.

Design tips
Incorporate meaningful activities for collaboration.

Scaffold these activities to encourage engagement. (You may find our Collaborative Activities guide useful.)

Learning materials connect to students’ interests and goals via case studies, readings and varied activities. The academic team should be visible to students too, so that they’re part of the learning community.

Design tips
Build in a variety of activities to keep students engaged.
Ensure that the tone of materials is enthusiastic and supportive of students as self-directed learners.

Workload is manageable and evenly distributed throughout the module. Sudden jumps in effort needed can be alarming and may make it difficult for students to plan their study.

Design tips
Make sure students know on a week-by-week basis what they’re expected to do.
Build in study skills such as time management, so students can keep on top of their own workload.

Learning materials cover just what’s needed to ensure students can demonstrate that they meet the learning outcomes. Prioritise the key concepts and skills that students need to grasp and build learning activities around these.

Activities include opportunities for regular reflection to help students test their understanding and track progress. Include formative and summative assessment opportunities to give students opportunities to reflect on their progress.

Design tips
Build in regular summaries to prompt reflection on key concepts.

Materials build understanding and skills gradually, helping students grasp the basics before exploring more complex concepts.

Design tips
Scaffold new concepts and skills, and provide low-stakes opportunities for students to practise them.
Look for ways to encourage students to become more self-directed as the course progresses.

Van Ameijde, J., Cross, S. and Weller M. (2015) Designing for Student Retention. The ICEBERG Model and Key Design Tips [Online]. Available at