Levels of Processing - Why a Self-Paced Module Could Teach Better Than a Video

One of the biggest challenges for corporate instructional designers is to keep fellow employees engaged in learning materials while other priorities and deadlines compete for their attention. Microlearning through video gained a lot of attention last year because it offered a convenient instructional design solution to quickly train employees so that they may return to their work. Though quick video training has its merit, when is it not enough?

Recently, I was given a project to develop some training content for Sales people. The subject matter was Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable department functions. Our Sales people need to know the workflows, terminology, and financial strategies used by these departments because a few of the software products they are selling pertain to AR/AP processes.

A subject matter expert graciously provided me a three-page script for a video. After reading through this script, it didn’t seem like a simple six-minute video would be enough for Sales people to remember the AR/AP nomenclature,  approaches, and particulars. 

But, for Sales people, time is money! Whatever time spent on this training will be time not spent making their commission. Videos six-minutes or less is perfect for them. Still, my fear was that a microlearning video would not adequately help the Sales people retain all the information they needed. Furthermore, videos are more likely to suffer from multitasking – people “watching” the video while simultaneously answering emails, completing forms, etc. 

I was determined to make the case for a larger, more time-consuming (yet more meaningful) modality of training. To make my case for a self-paced eLearning module, I relied on the Levels of Processing, created by Robert S. Lockhart and Fergus I.M. Craik (1972), which says that the depth of mental function affects memory.

According to Lockhart and Craik, memories that are more deeply processed are remembered longer, whereas shallow processing leads to memories that decay easily. Shallow processing happens in four ways:

  • Structural – How an object looks
  • Phonemic – How something sounds
  • Graphemic – Letters contained in a word
  • Orthographic – The shape of something

Deep processing happens in three ways:

  • Relating an object/situation etc. to something else
  • When the meaning of something is thought of
  • When the importance of something is processed

Basically, longer lasting memories manifest from thinking deeply about something, which also makes the memory easier to access. Shallow processing is only thinking about the surface of something, which can be more easily forgotten.

In my case, I believed a six-minute video would only allow for shallow processing. Of course, if they forgot the information, the Sales people could re-watch the video. But why when a solution for deeper processing is possible?

Lockhart and Craik also presented three factors that determined how a memory remains:

  • Maintenance Rehearsal – Process of repeating information
  • Elaborative Rehearsal – Information is analyzed in a deeper way (the only factor that improved long-term memory of the information)
  • Distinctiveness – Ability to tell things apart

With these types of practices in mind, I developed a few different interactions in the module to influence deeper processing. Here are a few examples:

I abandoned the linear structure enforced by video and established choice in the module. Learners could pick which information they wanted to engage with at any time.




To reinforce the terminology, many terms are repeatedly defined, explicitly and contextually. Learners were finally assessed on terminology by playing a matching game.





When portraying Accounts Receivable and Account Payable functions and responsibilities, their distinct characteristics are contrasted against each other. 





Finally, when describing financial strategies, storytelling is used for learners to analyze the content in a meaningful way. Based on a scenario, learners could pick the best strategy to implement.





Overall, the engagement required to participate in a self-paced eLearning module produces greater opportunities for deeper levels of processing and memory retention than a microlearning video. 

Levels of Processing does have its weaknesses though. Labels like “deep” and “shallow” do not amply encompass the complexity of memory. Furthermore, people with conditions that affect their memory cannot be assessed using this theory. Since the theory’s invention (1972) many neuropsychological studies have revealed specific brain structures and systems that deal with memory.

Weaknesses aside, under certain circumstances, I think providing more opportunities for deeper thinking can help learning audiences retain the information more so than a quick six-minute microlearning video.