Feature Development Through Four Learning Dimensions

Imagine a student, eager and enthusiastic, logging into a new digital learning platform for the first time. They're greeted not with guidance or structure but a chaotic array of courses, resources, and activities with no clear starting point or progression. Confusion quickly replaces excitement. The student feels overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin or how to proceed, leading to frustration and, eventually, disengagement. This scenario, unfortunately, is not uncommon and highlights a critical oversight in the design of digital learning experiences—the absence of a learning path.

How does this affect learning?

  • Cognitive dimension: without a structured learning path, students could easily become victims of cognitive overload, struggling to filter, process, and retain information effectively.
  • Metacognitive Dimension: Without milestones or reflective checkpoints, students miss opportunities to assess their understanding and adjust their learning strategies, crucial steps for developing self-awareness and autonomy in their educational journey.
  • Motivational Dimension: The lack of a clear path can also undermine motivation, leaving students without a sense of progress or achievement, elements vital for sustaining engagement and enthusiasm.
  • Social Dimension: Finally, the absence of a structured journey makes it challenging to integrate social learning experiences, which are essential for building a sense of community and belonging, as well as for learning from peers.

Last week, my colleague and I hosted a workshop that dove into the necessity of viewing educational features through the comprehensive lens of cognitive, metacognitive, motivational, and social dimensions. Interestingly, all participants recognised the learning path as one of the vital features of effective digital education. This feature was not just seen as an add-on but as a fundamental element that every course should embody.


Because a learning path is more than just a sequence of topics; it's a scaffolded journey that guides learners through the complexity of new knowledge, respecting their pace, enhancing their understanding, and motivating their continued progress.

Keep reading to dig deeper into each of these dimensions, using the learning path as a lens to explore how we can unlock the full potential of digital education. 

Where should we start?

What is the driving force behind learning? What is the initial spark that gets learners to engage with the material, persist through challenges, and ultimately achieve their learning goals?

In this article:


Let's begin with the role of motivation in the learning process, setting the stage for discussing other dimensions like cognitive, metacognitive, and social aspects, which build upon this base.

So, back to our student who logged into their learning platform. To keep them motivated, students have to develop feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness - postulates of self-determination theory (SDT) (1, 2). 

Here's how a learning path can be structured to address these needs:

Offering Choice to Foster Autonomy

Autonomy refers to the need for students to feel in control of their actions and decisions. A learning path can support this by:

  • Personalised Learning Choices: Allow students to choose from a variety of topics, difficulty levels, and types of content (videos, articles, interactive tasks) based on their interests and learning goals. This choice empowers them to take charge of their learning journey.
  • Flexible Pacing: Give students the freedom to progress through the learning path at their own pace. This flexibility respects individual learning speeds and acknowledges that students have varying amounts of time and energy to devote to learning.
  • Goal Setting: Incorporate tools within the learning path that enable students to set their own short-term and long-term goals. Providing guidance on setting achievable and challenging goals can further enhance this autonomy.

However, choice doesn't mean - here's everything you'll need for your studies, choose. It means offering structure first and allowing students to choose from that structure. 

Did you know that organisation and structure are the most important features for online students? Yes, they need synchronous classes, up-to-date content, practical learning skills, etc. But a clear road map is the most important dimension.


Enhancing Feelings of Competence

Competence involves the need to feel effective and capable of achieving desired outcomes. A learning path can nurture this by:

  • Adaptive Challenges: Adjust the difficulty of tasks based on the learner's performance, ensuring that tasks are neither too easy nor too difficult. This helps maintain an optimal challenge level that keeps learners engaged and promotes a sense of achievement.
  • Immediate Feedback: Provide instant feedback on assignments and quizzes to help students understand what they've mastered and where they need to improve. This feedback should be constructive, focusing on how students can achieve understanding rather than on the failure itself.
  • Showcasing Progress: Use visual indicators, such as progress bars or achievement badges, to clearly show students how far they've come in their learning journey. Celebrating milestones reinforces their sense of competence and achievement.

Fostering Relatedness

Relatedness is the need to feel connected to others. In a learning environment, this can be achieved through:

  • Collaborative Projects: Design parts of the learning path to include group work or discussions, where students can interact, share ideas, and learn from each other. This collaboration can happen in virtual breakout rooms or discussion forums.
  • Mentorship and Support: Connect students with mentors or tutors who can provide guidance, support, and encouragement. This connection not only helps students academically but also makes them feel valued and understood.
  • Community Engagement: Encourage students to participate in a learning community, whether through formal study groups or informal social media groups. Being part of a community can significantly enhance the learning experience by providing support, motivation, and a sense of belonging.

A learning path supported by the principles of Self-Determination Theory is likely to enhance intrinsic motivation among students, making them more eager to learn, more persistent in the face of challenges, and more satisfied with their learning experiences. This approach not only improves educational outcomes but also contributes to the development of lifelong learners who are motivated by curiosity and the joy of learning. 

Isn't this what everyone working in education should strive for?


Once our student has logged in, seen the learning path and now feels motivated to continue with the course, it's time to start learning.

The cognitive domain of learning encompasses the mental processes involved in the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of knowledge. A critical concept within this domain is cognitive load theory (CLT), which refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory (3, 4). 

It posits that for effective learning to occur, instructional design must consider the human brain's limited capacity to process new information. It distinguishes between three types of cognitive load: 

  • intrinsic: the complexity of the material itself
  • extraneous: how the material is presented
  • germane: the work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge. 

A well-designed learning path for online students, mindful of CLT, would aim to optimise these loads to enhance learning without overwhelming the students.

Let's see how we could use this theory to develop a learning path.

Intrinsic Load

Reminder: Do you remember what intrinsic load is in CLT?
Intrinsic load refers to the complexity inherent in the material being learned.

This is how a learning path can support students in their learning by reducing intrinsic load:

  • Tailored Complexity: The learning path should begin with an assessment of the learner's current knowledge and gradually introduce more complex concepts. What features to implement here? Pre-assessment (PA) sounds like a good starting point. The feedback and materials that build on the results of the PA ensure that the intrinsic load matches the learner's ability level at each stage.
  • Building Blocks: Break down complex information into fundamental concepts that are taught sequentially. By mastering simpler concepts first, learners can more easily handle the increased intrinsic load of complex material.

Extraneous Load

Quick stop and think: What is extraneous cognitive load?
Mental resources are devoted to elements that do not contribute to learning and schemata acquisition or automation.

  • Coherence and Signaling: Remove any non-essential content that doesn't directly contribute to learning goals to reduce distractions - like materials not relevant to the unit. Highlight or signal key information to guide learners' attention to important elements, minimising the effort required to find and process relevant information.
  • Integrated Learning Materials: Present text and visuals in a way that they complement each other, such as placing explanatory text close to its corresponding graphic. This reduces the need for learners to split their attention between sources of information, decreasing extraneous load.

Germane Load

True or False?
Germane load refers to the cognitive effort put into processing, constructing, and automating a schema. 

True :)

It's the effort invested in learning that contributes to the creation of permanent knowledge.

  • Scaffolding: Provide supportive structures and hints that encourage learners to think critically and make connections between new information and existing knowledge. This scaffolding helps learners effectively manage the germane load by facilitating deeper processing.
  • Varied Practice: Include activities that require learners to apply concepts in different contexts. This not only reinforces learning but also encourages the cognitive processing necessary for transferring knowledge to long-term memory.

A learning path designed with Cognitive Load Theory in mind carefully balances the introduction and practice of new concepts, the presentation of information, and the engagement of learners in higher-order thinking. By segmenting learning content, utilising interactive and visual aids, scaffolding learning experiences, providing immediate feedback, and encouraging collaboration, an online course on programming—or any subject—can optimise cognitive load to improve comprehension, retention, and application of knowledge, leading to a more effective and enjoyable learning experience.


A clear learning path is linked to the metacognitive dimension of learning, acting as a roadmap guiding learners through their educational journey. 

But first, what is metacognition?

Simply said, it's thinking about one's own thinking. It is how students plan, monitor, and assess their understanding and performance throughout their learning. 

And how does all this happen?

According to Zimmerman's model of self-regulated learning, there is a cyclical three-phase process involving forethought/planning, performance or volitional control, and self-reflection, which learners cycle through to plan, execute, and reflect upon their learning activities for continuous improvement. 

Wow, this sounds complicated. Let's try with baking.

Imagine you're learning to bake a cake using Zimmerman's model of self-regulated learning:

  1. Forethought/Planning Phase: Before you start baking, you set a goal to bake a chocolate cake that's moist and fluffy. You decide to research recipes, gather all necessary ingredients, and study techniques for mixing and baking that can affect the cake's texture and moisture.
  2. Performance/Volitional Control Phase: As you begin baking, you monitor your actions closely. You're focused on following the recipe accurately, mixing the ingredients with the right technique, and keeping an eye on the baking time and temperature. You adjust your actions as needed, like reducing the mixer's speed to avoid overmixing the batter, which can make the cake tough.
  3. Self-Reflection Phase: After the cake is baked and cooled, you evaluate the outcome. If the cake didn't turn out as moist or fluffy as you hoped, you reflect on what might have gone wrong and what could be improved. Perhaps you realise you overbaked it slightly or didn't measure the flour accurately. Based on this reflection, you make a mental or written note to adjust the baking time or be more precise with measurements next time.

OK, now that we have understood what metacognition is and how Zimmerman explained it, let's see how to apply this to a learning path.

Goal Setting and Planning (Forethought Phase)

  • Direction and Purpose: A clear learning path provides learners with a structured sequence of topics or skills to master, making it easier for them to set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals. This clarity helps in the forethought phase of metacognition, where learners engage in planning and goal-setting activities.
  • Strategic Approach: Knowing the steps of the learning path allows learners to plan their approach strategically. They can anticipate challenges, decide on the resources they will need, and select learning strategies that best suit each stage of their journey.

Self-monitoring and Regulation (Performance Phase)

  • Progress Tracking: A clear learning path allows learners to monitor their progress effectively. They can see what they have accomplished and what lies ahead, enabling them to make informed decisions about when to move forward, when to spend extra time on a concept, and when to seek help.
  • Adjustment of Strategies: As learners progress along a predefined path, they gain insights into their own learning preferences and the effectiveness of various strategies. This awareness enables them to adjust their methods, adopting more effective techniques for comprehension, retention, and application of knowledge.

Reflection and Evaluation (Self-reflection Phase)

  • Assessing Achievement: A well-defined learning path provides clear benchmarks and outcomes against which learners can evaluate their performance. This facilitates the self-reflection phase of metacognition, where learners assess their successes and areas for improvement.
  • Feedback Loop: Reflection on a clear learning path enables learners to identify specific points where they excelled or struggled, creating a feedback loop that informs future goal setting, planning, and strategy selection. This reflective process is essential for continuous learning and adaptation.

In essence, a clear learning path supports the metacognitive dimension of learning by providing structure, enabling effective planning and self-regulation, and facilitating a deeper understanding of one's own learning processes. It empowers learners to become more autonomous, reflective, and successful in their educational endeavours.


And finally, how does the social dimension come in handy when creating a learning path?

Social learning theory posits that people learn from one another through observation, imitation, and modelling, which can be particularly effective when integrated into educational environments. Here's how the learning path supports social learning:

1. Collaborative Learning Opportunities

  • Peer Sessions: By incorporating pair or group projects along the learning path can facilitate a direct form of social learning. Students can observe the problem-solving approaches of their peers, discuss various strategies, and collaboratively work through challenges. This not only helps in understanding different ways to tackle a problem but also in appreciating the value of diverse perspectives in learning.
  • Discussion Boards: These forums serve as a platform for students to engage in social learning by posing questions, sharing insights, and offering solutions. When a student articulates a concept or a solution to a peer's question, it reinforces their understanding and confidence in the subject matter. Observing peers' questions and the responses they elicit can also help learners understand common pitfalls and effective strategies, contributing to a deeper comprehension of programming concepts.

2. Feedback Loops

  • Peer Review: Beyond automated feedback on exercises, incorporating peer review sessions where students assess each other's work can significantly enhance social learning. This process encourages learners to critically evaluate work according to set criteria, providing constructive feedback that benefits both the reviewer (by enhancing critical thinking and evaluative skills) and the recipient (by offering insights into different coding styles and logic).
  • Group Discussions for Reflective Learning: Encouraging students to share their learning experiences, challenges faced, and how they overcame those challenges can foster a supportive learning community. Sharing stories of failure and success is vital for social learning, as it helps to normalise the learning process, making it clear that struggling is part of learning.

3. Mentorship and Support

  • Mentor-Led Sessions: Sessions led by more experienced students or educators can provide a model for learners to emulate. Set milestones in the learning path with live coding sessions, Q&A forums, or recorded video explanations where students or lecturers can demonstrate best practices and approaches to complex problems. Observing and engaging with experts helps learners to internalise effective strategies and attitudes towards learning and problem-solving.
  • Mentorship Programs: Pairing learners with more experienced students or mentors can provide a more personalised social learning experience. They can offer guidance, support, and encouragement, helping mentees navigate the learning path more effectively. This one-on-one interaction is not only beneficial for knowledge acquisition but also for building confidence and a sense of belonging in the programming community.

The learning path supports social learning by creating an environment where learners are actively engaging with their peers and mentors, sharing knowledge, and learning from each other's experiences. These social interactions are integral to reinforcing learning, fostering a sense of community, and developing soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and empathy. By leveraging the principles of social learning, the online Introduction to Programming course not only teaches programming skills but also prepares learners to thrive in collaborative, real-world programming environments.

Key Takeaways:

Each feature designed for a learning platform should be first considered through the lenses of learning. Only then can it actually bring some learning value.

1. Motivational Dimension:

    • Motivation is a key driver of engagement and persistence in learning. Incorporating elements that enhance intrinsic motivation, such as offering choices, setting meaningful goals, and providing feedback, can improve learners' dedication and effort.

2. Cognitive Dimension:

    • Understanding the cognitive processes involved in learning is crucial. This includes how learners process information, store knowledge, and retrieve it. Strategies that reduce cognitive load and tailor content complexity to the learner's level can significantly enhance comprehension and retention.

3. Metacognitive Dimension:

    • Metacognition, or thinking about one's own thinking, is pivotal in self-regulated learning. Teaching learners to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning strategies helps them become more effective and independent learners.

4. Social Dimension:

    • Learning is inherently social. Opportunities for collaboration, discussion, and peer feedback enrich the learning experience, deepening understanding and making learning more enjoyable and meaningful.

By intertwining these dimensions into the learning path, learning experts, designers, and educators can create more supportive learning environments that cater to the complex nature of human learning.

Read more in:

(1) Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

(2) Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

(3) Orru G., Longo L. (2019). The Evolution of Cognitive Load Theory and the Measurement of Its Intrinsic, Extraneous and Germane Loads: A Review. In: Longo L., Leva M. (eds) Human Mental Workload: Models and Applications. H-WORKLOAD 2018. Communications in Computer and Information Science, vol 1012. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14273-5_3 

(4) Sweller, J., Van Merrienboer, J. J., & Paas, F. G. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational psychology review, 10(3), 251–296.