Linear Learning

Linear Learning

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Linear learning is an educational approach which involves pedagogical strategies concerning program-centeredness (directed, conducted, controlled, guided by the study program) and linear formats. It stands in opposition to flexible learning.

A linear learning format implies that to be able to, for example, learn the content of module C, one is required to have mastered (through evaluation processes) the content of module A and B. In a linear learning environment this format follows a predetermined line where the content is delivered with none or little flexibility for participants. There is a long discussion on the efficiency of linear learning. Outcomes of experiments conducted by Benjamin Granger [1] have shown that in some cases (to be explained in the following paragraphs) linear may become more effective then flexible learning environments, suggesting that there is no better approach per se, but that it is dependent on the context (type of content: simple or complex; and learner: learning styles and goal orientation/self motivation levels).

See also: flexible learning, learning styles, blended learning, cognitive load, learning behavior, distance learning, e-learning.


The study

Supported by the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), which calls attention to the level of cognitive load in the learning process, the focus of Granger’s argumentation lays on the divergence of outcomes regarding learner-controlled[2] (flexible learning) scenarios in both modalities of flexible learning, face to face and distance learning. One of the scenarios encompasses relatively simple content, whereas the other refers to complex content. As presented in the chart below[3], flexible learning seems to be effective while dealing with simple content, with slightly superior results in opposition to ‘program control’ (linear learning). When embedded in a complex scenario, the flexible approach looses approximately fifty percent of its effectiveness. This experiment demonstrates that flexible learning scenarios are in principle a weak approach when dealing with complex contents.

Grafico2 flexible learning.jpg

The flexible learning approach for complex content has not shown to be disadvantageous for every participant. Granger suggests that the performance of learners inserted in flexible learning environments was strongly influenced by personal goal orientation, which refers to the motivational level and learning behavior of the learner. The higher the goal orientation, the higher the performance in a learner-controlled (flexible) scenario, regardless of the complexity of the content. This assertion enforces the idea that flexible learning tends to highlight motivational individual differences, which are seen as a disadvantage in the learning processes.

Overcoming individual differences and mastering cognitive load

According to Granger, individual mindsets may be influenced and even shaped in order to optimize student’s use of learner-control (in flexible learning environments). The Learner Goal Orientation[4] may be naturally high in some individuals, but may also be induced or stimulated by external actors (trainers, instructional designers, supervisors, etc.) through error encouragement[5] for example; making it an individual difference that can be influenced prior to and during training.[6] Blended learning approaches regarding the application of both linear and flexible learning sets, in which the learner is provided with partial control of learning activities, may be also considered as an alternative to overcome individual differences and cognitive overload.

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Link Content
Linear and non-linear learning Ken Carroll brings his point of view on divergences between linear and non-linear learning. he defends flexible learning, based on the presupposition that the way humans learn is not linear at all. 'Networks' is a common term used by Carrol. (free access)


  1. Granger, Benjamin P., "Enhancing Training Outcomes in the Context of e-Learning: The Impact of Objective Learner Control, Training Content Complexity, Cognitive Load, Learning Goal Orientation, and Metacognitive Strategies" (2012). Graduate School Theses and Dissertations. Pdf.png PDF
  2. See also: | Learner Control
  3. Granger, Benjamin P., op. cit. (reproduced with permission)
  4. Granger, Benjamin P., p.28-34, op. cit.
  5. In an organizational training setting, trainers and instructional designers may include simple framing cues or instructions such as error encouragement and describing errors during training as learning opportunities (Bell & Kozlowski, 2008) and describing learners’ abilities as malleable as opposed to being fixed. Similarly, eliminating error avoidance instructions during training can help learners adopt a learning goal orientation." (Granger, Benjamin P., p.88, op. cit.).
  6. Granger, Benjamin P., p.16, op. cit.