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  • Writer's pictureHayley Sayre

Cognitive Agility: Maximizing Learning in a Fast-Paced World

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

An arm extended holding a white brain sculpture against a green background.
Toy Brain. Image source:

In a world where technology is constantly changing, the ability for employees to quickly learn and adapt is more important than ever. This can be intimidating for many employees, and as an instructional designer you may also be feeling overwhelmed. The task of designing approachable and efficient training becomes increasingly daunting with every shiny new software rollout, but fear not! By anchoring your work in cognitive theory, you can help learners to navigate their changing job skills with confidence and success.

The Need For Speed

You’re not imagining it, the need to master new technology is becoming more important all the time. In fact, you may have heard the buzzword digital dexterity, which Gartner cites as a critical workplace skill, defined as the, “employees’ ability… [to use] existing and emerging technologies to drive business outcomes” (Wiles, 2022). Experts predict that technological skills will be moving at this pace for the foreseeable future. In fact, a study by the World Economic Forum predicts that half of the American workforce will need to be trained on new technology by 2025.

A man with glasses and a watch in front of a laptop with his hand on his face appearing frustrated.
Stressed man. Image source:

Enter the instructional designers! It’s our job to guide learners through these many changes and ensure they can succeed in their evolving roles. However, it is critical that ID’s keep in mind that, with so much information to process, employees may feel overwhelmed and experience burn out. An increasingly critical consideration for instructional designers is managing an appropriate cognitive load, or the amount of information a person is taking in, as exceeding cognitive load past the learner’s capacity tends to lead to poorer learning outcomes.

Brain Basics

To ensure that you’re designing learning experiences that maximize efficiency and avoid cognitive overload, it’s important to understand how the brain processes and retains information. Sensory input is constantly absorbed as we interact with our environment. Not all information is equally important, and therefore sensations are processed differently! For example, as you walk the aisles of the grocery store, the sounds of your footsteps are far more trivial than the words on your list and the sight of items on the shelves. Think about your current surroundings. What sensory input are you most likely to remember tomorrow, and what will you forget immediately?

A pile of scattered black 3D question marks, two are orange and illuminated.
Laurin Steffens. Image source:

In order to store this information in our memory, “we have to consciously select what we want to remember” (Merriam & Bierema, 2013, p. 173). In the grocery store, you may attend to the information by repeating which items you need; milk, cheese, flour… milk, cheese, flour. This rehearsal stores the information in your working memory, where it can either be discarded or processed and stored in long term memory (Merriam & Bierema, 2013). It’s unlikely that you can recall a grocery list from a year ago, because that information did not require future recall, so was not given the attention required to store it long-term.

Consider an employee feeling bombarded with new information this year. How can we help them to attend to critical input and maximize their retention?

Mindful Design

Strengthening your learners’ digital dexterity requires creating an optimal learning experience and instilling confidence in their abilities. With varying degrees of technological expertise among employees, patience and guidance are critical to ensure that everyone feels capable. Don’t underestimate the potential of inexperienced or older employees to rise to the challenge, as anyone who is provided with “ideas and opportunities in an enriched environment,” is capable of learning (Merriam & Bierema, 2013, p. 172). Try these strategies to help your learners confidently tackle the next new learning challenge.

  • Striking a Balance: Effective instructional design requires balancing cognitive load and learning outcomes. Although excessive cognitive load can be detrimental, if it were entirely eliminated then learning would not be possible! The challenge for instructional designers is finding the sweet spot; boosting germane load while keeping intrinsic and extraneous load in check.

    • Intrinsic load refers to the fundamental difficulty of the content. Depending on what is required by your manager or SME, this can be difficult to alter. However you can help to manage intrinsic load by using chunking to break a large training into smaller sessions, or a complex topic into manageable, bite-sized components.

    • Extraneous load includes distractions and irrelevant information. Our goal is to reduce this so learners focus on the most important content. Try keeping a clean and consistent interface, removing unnecessary graphics, and providing a volume and mute button for audio.

    • Germane load is the cognitive effort required to integrate new information into our existing mental frameworks. The goal is to increase this, because it allows learning to occur! Start with clear learning objectives and an agenda to help learners understand the big picture and create mental frameworks for navigating and processing the information. Encourage deep thinking by providing problem-based activities and interactive simulations.

  • Attitude Matters: Creating a positive environment is critical to increasing buy-in during trainings. While we like to think of ourselves as highly logical, our emotions play a significant role in how information is processed, and therefore either

A small group of people are seated and facing the same direction, they are smiling and holding papers in their laps.
Meeting. Image source:

remembered or forgotten (Merriam & Bierema, 2013, p. 170). If employees associate the learning with positive memories, their motivation will increase, while negative memories can lead to disengagement (Merriam & Bierema, 2013, p. 170). Buy in is particularly important today when employees may be feeling intimidated or frustrated by the rapid pace of change. Take the time to establish a respectful and encouraging tone - it’s worth the effort!

  • Think Long Term: You may be dismayed to hear that, “adults forget about 80% of what they hear within 48 hours” (Rothwell, 2020, p. 66). However there is a lot you can do to maximize learning retention!

    • Provide your learners with a job aid so they can reference key information from the training on the job. Continue to minimize cognitive overload here; keep your instructions clear, succinct, and free from redundant or unnecessary content.

    • Storing memories long-term requires encoding, or processing, which you can facilitate by including a variety of sensory inputs into your training (Merriam & Bierema, 2013). Use text, images, and hands-on learning to help learners make stronger associations with the new information!

    • Encourage learners to attend to key information through reinforcement. As you provide quizzes, discussion prompts, games, and role-play opportunities, your learners will be rehearsing the information. These strategies allow them time to make sense of what they’re learning and improve the likelihood of long-term memory storage.

Embracing Change

As instructional designers, we have the power to help employees navigate the reskilling challenges that lie ahead. Like everyone in today’s workforce, we will need to adapt to this rapid pace of change by examining our design practices. Not only can you anchor your designs in cognitive theory to create effective, evidence-based learning experiences, but you can also shine as a leader, modeling focus, confidence, and a heart for lifelong learning!


Fuhrman, J. (2017, June 6). Cognitive load theory: Helping students’ learning systems function more efficiently. The International Institute for Innovative Instruction. Retrieved April 28, 2023, from

Li L. (2022). Reskilling and upskilling the future-ready workforce for industry 4.0 and beyond. Information systems frontiers : A journal of research and innovation, 1–16. Advance online publication.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2013). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. John Wiley.

Whitenton, K. (2013, December 22). Minimize cognitive load to maximize usability. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from

Wiles, J. (2022, September 22). Getting employees to love workplace tech. Gartner. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from

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