Instructional Design for Human Learning: The Basics

The information processing theory explains how humans perceive, internalize, and remember information. The Atkinson and Shriffin’s (1968) information processing model included three systems: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. This was a linear process, which has since been replaced with the nonlinear working memory model (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974) and other connectionist processes that align with current cognitive neuroscience views of human learning. Instructional designers should focus on the following concepts of information processing to improve learning and retention: the importance of gaining students’ attention, the limitation to working memory, and how to reduce cognitive load.

First, paying attention to instruction is paramount to learning. Bruning, Schraw, and Norby (2011, p.15) define attention as “the mental energy used to perceive, think, and understand.” A person’s attention is limited, selective, but can be self-regulated. There are several distracters which compete for a person’s attention such as noise outside the classroom, unmet physiological needs (e.g., hunger), and psychological aspects (e.g., motivational factors). Therefore, students need to selectively focus on the key elements of the information to be learned. It’s important to explicitly tell students about the importance of attention and teach them how to focus in order for them to be successful. Bruning et al. (p. 35), refer to this as “managing their resources.” They also encourage us to help students transfer these strategies to other content, as this may not occur to them without prompting. As instructional designers, we’re trained to use Gagne’s (1985) nine events of instruction, the first of which is to gain the learner’s attention. Some of the various instructional strategies to achieve this goal are to manipulate the motion, size, intensity, novelty, and/or incongruity of the information.

Second, consider the limitations to working memory and embed metacognitive strategies to help students learn the content. According to Miller (1956), humans are capable of remembering only seven plus-or-minus two pieces of information in our memory at any given time without the help of learning strategies. Therefore, it’s imperative for educators and/or the instruction to provide students with memory strategies to expand this capability or otherwise limit the amount of information provided at any given time. A sampling of learning strategies include chunking, imagery, mnemonics, and rehearsal. Instructional designer should identify specific learning strategies to help students stretch their working memory according to the content, learning environment, and age-appropriateness.

Lastly, due to the competition on a learner’s attention and the limitations to working memory, consider reducing the cognitive load when designing lessons. The cognitive load theory is attributed to Baddeley’s working memory model. Theorists took his model a step further to explain the various intrinsic and extraneous demands on learning information (Sweller, Van Merriënboer, & Paas, 1998). Cognitive load refers to the amount of effort required to process information. For example, difficult information requires more effort due to its intrinsic structure. Extraneous demands refer to how the information is presented during instruction. Bruning et al., explained how intrinsic cognitive load is unalterable until you properly learn something, so that it becomes part of your schema. Instructional designers need to consider the complexity of the content, instructional environment, and the characteristics of the learners in order to avoid cognitive overload. Here are some tips:

  • slow the speed of delivery of complex concepts;
  • sequence tasks logically;
  • use a multimodal approach to delivery; and
  • segment tasks such as instructional videos in small chunks of time (e.g., five minutes).


Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47-90). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Sweller, J., Van Merriënboer, J., & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review10(3), 251–296. doi:10.1023/A:1022193728205

Author: teacherrogers

Content developer, instructional designer, trainer, and researcher

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