The Human Information Processing System: How People Learn (or Don’t)

In a recent blog post titled “Why People Don’t Remember Their Training: Five Steps of Learning and Applying Information,” we introduced a few basic ideas about how people think and learn (that process, by the way, is known as cognition).

In that post, we briefly mentioned a five-step process of learning, and noted that when people forget what they learned in training, it’s often because the training was designed without keeping these five steps in mind.

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at each of those five steps.

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And with that intro down, let’s get into the article.


Here are those five steps of learning again:

  1. We experience information through our senses and our sensory memory
  2. Some of that information is then processed by our working memory (also sometimes called short-term memory)
  3. Some of that information is stored in our long-term memory (this is called encoding)
  4. Information in the long-term memory may later be retrieved and applied in the context in which it was learned (this is called transferring)
  5. Information in the long-term memory may also later be applied in a new context (this is called far transferring)

Combined, those five steps make up the human-information processing system.

Seem pretty simple? Just in case you were reading quickly, let’s go back and look at some of the implications of those steps.

Step Did you notice or think about this?
We experience information through our senses and sensory memory Information comes to us as external sensory stimuli, we perceive it through our sense organs, and we experience it through our sensory memory.

Information is in our sensory memory for only fractions of a second. And there’s a lot of it.

Some of that information is processed by our working memory Some of the information from our sensory memory reaches our short-term or working memory. This is the stuff that you’re actively aware of right NOW, and it includes stuff you’ve stored in memory earlier and happen to be thinking about actively now too (stuff you’ve retrieved).

A lot of the external sensory stimuli that comes to us is filtered out almost immediately and never even gets processed by even our working memory.

The working memory can only “handle” or process a small amount of information “bits” (maybe 3-5) without losing some and can only do that for a short period of time (15-20 seconds) unless you actively keep processing the information (like you do when you repeat a phone number over and over again so you won’t forget it).

Some of that information is stored in our long-term memory Only some information from our working memory is encoded into our long-term memory. The rest is lost.

Information “bits” are stored in information “packets” called schemas. By associating new knowledge/information with existing knowledge, we make it easier to store and later retrieve.

Information in long-term memory may be retrieved later Ideally, learners will retrieve the information from their long-term memory when they later need it.

Although information is stored in the long-term memory, that doesn’t mean people always later retrieve it when they need it.For example, you’ve probably ran into a person you haven’t seen a while, failed to remember their name, and only said “Oh, I know that!” when someone later told it to you.

It can be easier to retrieve and use information from the long-term memory if it’s somehow associated with the context in which it must be used.

Information in the long-term memory may also later be applied in a new context Retrieving information from the long-term memory and applying it in a new context is different than applying the information in the same context in which it was originally learned.

To use a common phrase, transferring is higher-level thinking; it’s also sometimes called far transfer.

People are better at far transfer if they have well-developed mental models (we’ll talk about that more in a future article).

So what’s the point, you ask?

As a trainer or instructional designer, it’s important to keep these points in mind while creating training materials so that your training will be more effective.

Keeping this information in mind can help you in at least two ways: First, you can use your knowledge of how people’s brains work when they learn (or when they don’t) to help you create training materials that are easier to learn. Second, you can see the different points in the process (each “step” listed above) where your job as a trainer involves helping the learner reach the next step.

In future posts, we’ll give you some tips of what you can do to aid the learning process at each of these steps.

(Later addition to this post) Here’s the next post in this series: From Sensory Memory to Working Memory.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

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