Cognitive Limitations Of Adult Learners In eLearning: 6 Factors To Consider

Cognitive Limitations Of Adult Learners In eLearning: 6 Factors To Consider
Summary: The human mind can only absorb so much before it throws in the proverbial towel. But how much is too much? In this article, I'll delve into the 6 factors that determine the cognitive limitations of adult learners, so that you can increase knowledge retention and prevent cognitive overwhelm.

6 Factors That Determine The Cognitive Limitations Of Adult Learners In eLearning

Every human mind has a finite capacity for processing and storing data. There are times when our short-term memory can simply run out of space, forcing our minds to virtually shut down and stop absorbing new ideas and concepts. This can happen to even most brilliant among us, especially when there is a constant influx of information. It's important for eLearning professionals to know the 6 factors that play a pivotal role in shaping these cognitive limits, so that you can minimize cognitive overload for your online learners.

  1. Amount of information
    According to Miller's theory regarding "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two" [2], most adult learners are able to store between 5 and 9 items of information at once in their short-term memory. Once we exceed this limit we run the risk of overloading our mental pathways and we cannot absorb any new information. This is why it's essential to break longer eLearning courses down into more manageable online modules or lessons, and avoid using lengthy text blocks and opt for bullet points, sub headers, and images that tie into the subject matter. The goal is to not bombard them with so much information that their brains become burdened, because that only leads to frustration and a lack of results.
  2. Exposure to information
    In addition to the amount of information we are given, our minds are also affected by how we are exposed to the information. In particular, the time we have to absorb the key concepts. We must review, recap, and repeat information on a regular basis in order to remember it. Try to space eLearning activities so that online learners have time to absorb and retain the information, but also keep the forgetting curve in mind. Hermann Ebbinghaus introduced the curve, which stipulates that memory retention is a function of the relative strength of memory over time [1]. Studies on the forgetting curve and knowledge retention rates have shown that we tend to forget about 90 percent of what we learn within the first month. This means that we must review and actively recall the information before that time limit, or else we tend to forget it completely.
  3. Attention span
    The human attention span tends to grow as we get older. However, even adult learners have their limits. Distractions, busy schedules, and a variety of other factors can have a direct impact on our attention spans. Even the instructional design of the eLearning course itself can factor into the equation. For example, an eLearning course that features a variety of chaotic images, cluttered pages, and a disorganized layout can distract your online learners. This will prevent them from effectively assimilating the information. For this very reason, you should keep your eLearning content organized and clutter-free. Don't fear white space and make sure that every image ties into the subject matter.
  4. Tapping into the long-term memory 
    There are times when we are simply unable to access our long-term memory banks. The new concepts or ideas we are learning simply remain in our working memory, which prevents us from calling upon it when we truly need it. There are a variety of things that can cause this, from lack of sleep to mental conditions that hinder our cognitive processes. No matter how long or hard we try to tap into the information, we are unable to reach it. This is one of the trickiest cognitive limitations of adult learners to address. However, you can help to prevent it by using real world examples and stories to link new concepts to preexisting knowledge.
  5. Age
    This particular cognitive limitation is a double-edged sword, as both younger and more mature adult learners are impacted by their age. Let's take a closer look at how this can affect two generations who cover both ends of the age spectrum:

    • Millennials
      While younger adult learners may have the ability to retain more information and process it more rapidly, in most cases, they also tend to have a smaller knowledge base. This means that Millennials must work harder to enrich their knowledge base first in order to be able to tie new information to preexisting ideas and concepts. This may take some time, as it involves two steps in the process of making the connection, primarily because they have to form entirely new mental schemas.
    • Baby Boomers
      As the human memory tends to degrade as we grow older, more mature adult learners are less able to absorb and retain information as effectively as younger generations. Information, therefore, cannot be transferred from the working memory to the long-term memory as rapidly. However, Baby Boomers do have experience and preexisting knowledge on their side. They already have an abundance of mental schemas and neural pathways to build upon, which enables them to connect new ideas to information they have already assimilated.
  6. Emotional factors
    Stress, anxiety, and a variety of other emotions can have a significant impact on the limitations of adult learners. Positive emotions can help us to absorb knowledge more effectively, while negative ones can have the exact opposite effect. This is why it's important to create a supportive and optimistic eLearning environment for your online learners. Use colors that soothe their minds and images that evoke positive emotions. Learn as much as possible about their interests and try to integrate them into the overall design of your eLearning course. The objective is to take away any negative emotions that can prevent them from fully engaging in the eLearning process.

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the cognitive limitations iceberg. Therefore, it's important to conduct in depth eLearning audience research to figure out which mental obstacles adult learners are facing, so that you can increase knowledge retention and reduce cognitive overwhelm.

Employees are busy, stressed, and often distracted. Read the article 7 Success Factors To Win The Bet With Overwhelmed Corporate Learners and keep these success factors in mind when you're developing your next online training program.


  1. Forgetting curve
  2. Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.