Complex learning involves the integration of qualitatively different knowledge and skills along with their relationships and interaction rules. All the following tasks are complex:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Selling
  • Troubleshooting
  • Hardware design
  • Selecting the most appropriate statistical test for a given set of circumstances
  • Balancing competing priorities, such as prioritizing worker safety while maximizing return on investment and minimizing costs


As part of the “real world,” complex tasks frequently have novel variations and uncertainty. Every customer is a new challenge; almost no business models factored in a pandemic. These skills require knowledge transfer: taking what you know, making adaptions, and applying it in different situations.

Especially when dealing with uncertainty, complex learning is not well-suited for a linear instructional design model. Unfortunately, education and traditional training do just that: They teach a string of tasks sequentially and then place the onus of mastering the portion on the learner. Because these tasks and interactions are merely too much to learn at one time, they overload learners’ cognitive processes. The result is wasted training time, increased employee stress, burnout, and turnover while yielding less-than-optimal results.

When faced with complex tasks, I base my training on the Four-Component Instructional Design Model (4C/ID). Explicitly designed to reduce overall cognitive load and courage transfer, this nonlinear model developed by van Merriënboer and his colleagues breaks training down into components: (1) learning tasks, (2) supportive information, (3) procedural information, and (4) part-task practice.

Learning tasks

When using 4C/ID, I start with the two fundamental questions, “What do the learners need to do?” and “What do they need to know to do this?”

Learning tasks include projects, problems, case studies, etc. You would start with fully formed, authentic tasks. These learning tasks should start as straightforward as possible while still being faithful to avoid overload. As the learner masters the simple cases, add complexity.

Say, for example, you are trying to train a cohort of spokespersons for a large corporation. The first learning task could be telling a friendly press corps that the Company is adding 1,000 jobs to a new area. It would involve receiving the information, facing the press, giving the news, and responding to questions. To truly master the role, the spokesperson must also prepare their script from primary sources and raw documents. This should be the second learning task. The third task could be going on a financial radio show and discussing missed financial milestones.  These are all authentic tasks, and, for most jobs, they should be practiced in as realistic a setting as possible. Notice, too, that they are hugely divergent. This is by design: the variability in the tasks encourages knowledge transfer.

Not all complex tasks are as nebulous as the spokesperson. Teaching hardware design would have a different approach to whole task practice. In this case, the learner is guided through Worked Examples. These examples would highlight the complexities and interactivity of the information. The next step would be to provide similar examples, except with small portions of the solution removed. The learner would complete the highly scaffolded problems, and progress with each iteration require more significant input from the learners. For transfer, the difficulties should still vary.

Supportive Information

The next component is Supportive Information. This information is provided to help with the less common variants of the task. This isn’t a simple blurb on a computer screen. This type of information offers cognitive strategies: how to approach a situation, the way a given set of circumstances fits into the overall knowledge base that the task or job requires. You work on the best way to begin and the best way to do it into their mental model. One of the more difficult instructional design tasks is working with true experts to get the best mental model.

Procedural Information

The third component is procedural information, which supports the ordinary, routine tasks of the job. This information is provided just in time. In other words, you don’t present the learners with formula until they need the procedure. Doing so ahead of time adds noise, or more accurate, extraneous cognitive load. This type of information can be just a blurb on a pop-up window. It explains a basic how-to, with the facts, principles, and rules associated. For the spokesperson, this can be how to gather the press for a press conference or announcement.

For our hardware designer, the procedural information could be formulas or standard bits of circuitry repeatedly.

Part-Task Practice

Finally, you have part-task practice. Part-task practice usually involves some particularly tedious or difficult tasks and an enormous amount of repetition. For physicians, it could be tying sutures on a vein. For our spokespersons, this is most likely dealing with hostile questions while thinking on their feet. They will spend a lot of time being peppered with aggressive or leading questions, irrelevant details, and erroneous leaps of logic.

Standard differential equations and integrations are the most likely candidates for part-task practice. After mastering math, the designer can automate large portions of the design workload.

Although 4C/ID is an excellent model, it’s still just a model and isn’t suitable for every situation. Instructional design is complex, like the tasks we have been discussing. To get the training your organization deserves, you need instructional designers who can blend models, adapt models, or let the content drive the learning.

Radiant Digital can design and build the training your organization needs, all the way from specific compliance training to consequence-critical complex learning.