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The Elaboration Likelihood Method for instructional design

The digital revolution has brought with it a wide array of tools and apps for instructional designers to employ in order to make learning interventions more engaging and relevant. Since visual stimuli are everywhere and the newer generations constantly need new things fast, simply adding a great video or even realistic VR doesn’t quite do it, so learning specialists turn to the findings of neurology and psychology for effective ways of capturing attention, delivering information and bringing about desired behaviors.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) is such a theory that holds great promise as it focuses on how attitudes are formed and changed. ELM acknowledges the numerous and various attitude change processes and gathers them all under the same conceptual umbrella. The theory emerged as a solution to find some logic in what appeared to be inconsistent findings in previous research done in the field of persuasion.

The same action, whether it was distracting a person from reading a message or associating the same message with an engaging source or event, would sometimes enhance persuasion, other times reduce it and on some occasions it would have no effect whatsoever.

To make things more confusing, at times attitude change would last for a longer period time and become a predictor of behavior and other times it would not. The ELM provides a framework to make sense of all these conflicting findings.

The two processing routes

Developed in the 1980s by Petty and Cacioppo, ELM is a dual process theory that sets about to shed light on the way in which people process received messages and change their attitudes following that.

Essentially, the authors say that people process information through two paths; either the central path or the peripheral route. The central path is equipped with a high level of critical thinking and as such generates attitudes that are longer lasting, resistant to influence, and are more likely to eventually bring about behavioral change.

However, it is important to note that this path requires mental energy so people will only use it to process messages if two conditions are met:

  • They are motivated to think about the message.
  • They are cognitively capable to process the message.

On the other hand, the peripheral route is taken by people when they don’t have either the motivation or the ability to process a message deeply and thus rely on certain cues to change their behavior. Attitudes that are a result of peripheral processing are weak and don’t normally lead to sustained behavior change.

Application for instructional design

It’s clear that the preferred format for corporate L&D is e-learning. Modules have to be engaging, concise and available on demand. The main goal of any teaching intervention remains the same as it has always been: to drive behavior. Since ELM demonstrates that this can only happen if learners actively process the content via the central path, instructional designers need to make sure that the learners feel motivated and have the cognitive tools to receive and interpret the message.


The „what’s in it for me” section has been an important part of traditional training for as long as corporate learning has been around. Modern-day requirements of keeping everything super short and relevant have severely cut into that and the result is that learners are not that invested in the material.

It’s important that individuals feel that there is something of value to them in the content so it’s advisable to begin any module with something that will prove just that. It can either be a problem-based scenario, a good story or a case study that learners can relate to, thus increasing the personal relevance of the information about to be presented.

Another good option is to clearly link any skills that are targeted to be improved by the module to the performance objectives of the employees. Applicability of learned content is important not only to the business but also to the individual – if they are going to invest time and cognitive effort, it has to be well worth it.

Read more: Understanding employee motivation with the Self-Determination Theory

Cognitive ability

It’s easy to brush this aspect off as one having to do with the learner's previous experiences and education. Indeed, an individual’s ability to critically interpret and appropriate information does have a lot to do with their prior development but it’s not all there is to it. The cognitive resources available to process a certain message can be influenced and enriched by instructional designers when they construct the learning materials.

When people try to learn something, the issue of focus always seems to be present. To make it easier for the learner to harness the potential of their cognitive resources and take the central processing path, the amount of distractions should be at a minimum. Distracting stimuli can do a lot of damage to a person’s concentration so it’s best that any e-learning module is accessed in a quiet environment, if possible without messenger or email pop-ups.

Read more: Overcoming the most common roadblocks to knowledge transfer

Furthermore, even though it’s tempting to incorporate a lot of media content in e-learning modules, designers should limit themselves only to what is truly relevant to the learning experience.

Closing remarks

It’s no secret that information retention and behavior change takes time and effort. ELM provides valuable insights into the workings of the human brain when faced with a message. While the processing route will always be an individual decision, instructional designers can do quite a lot to influence that and ensure that valuable knowledge gets sent on the right (central) path.