Learning Processes

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Learning Processes

Learning Processes

Understanding learning processes can help the instructional designer to develop instruction that is going to be meaningful to learners.


Memory is the learner's ability to take in, process, and store information, retaining it for future use and reference. When designing training, it is important for an instructional designer to keep in mind a learner's memory. This may sound obvious, but often it is not.

The very definition of learning involves processing information for storage and later retrieval in long-term memory.

Cognitive Load

Building on the theory of memory, cognitive load has to do with what is known as a learner's working memory. Working memory refers to the area of the brain that processes information. Cognitive load is the amount of activity that working memory experiences during the learning process.

Cognitive load theory, or CLT, says that working memory is limited. It can be limited by a number of demands:

  • Intrinsic: Intrinsic demands reflect the level of information that needs to be retained. In instructional design, intrinsic load usually cannot be changed.
  • Germane: Germane demands occur when the learner is constructing new schemas. A schema is when the learner's mind constructs a framework to remember and process information. Learning experts believe that germane cognitive load has a positive effect on learning.
  • Extraneous: Extraneous demands are based on how the learning is delivered. If the delivery causes demands on the learner's cognition, retention of the information will suffer. The instructional designer can affect this aspect of cognition.

How does this theory affect what an ID does? Most learning theorists agree that working memory can retain seven pieces, or chunks, of information. Another recommendation is to avoid redundant or repetitious information, which helps the learner's cognitive load remain low. Using visual and auditory information can also relieve cognitive load, thus helping learners process and retain information.

In our hypothetical course on business writing, we would make sure that the lessons did not contain too much content so that the learner would be overwhelmed.

For example, say we had the following topics in a lesson on e-mail and instant messaging:

  • E-mail Subject Lines
  • E-mail
  • The Body of the E-mail
  • E-mail Signatures
  • Responding to E-mail
  • Using the Cc and Bcc Fields Appropriately
  • Instant Message Statuses
  • IMing: Keeping it Brief
  • Using Professional Language in IMs
  • Follow Office IM Policies

This is so much information that it would probably be better to split it into two different lessons, one on e-mail and the other on instant messaging. This is an example of extraneous load, how the training is delivered. This is something that the ID can and should be in control of.


Another learning process theory is that of behaviorism. Behaviorism says that the mental processes that a learner goes through cannot be studied. What can be studied is the behavior that the learning produces. Therefore, the focus should be on the desired behavior.

In instructional design, the designer uses objectives and goals, measurable behavior, that the learner should be able to perform when the instruction has been completed. Instructional goals are framed within observable terms that are specific. The ADDIE model is a good representation of behaviorism in instructional design.

For example, in a class on using Photoshop to edit pictures, behaviorism's focus would be on getting the learner to that goal, of being able to edit a picture.