Illeris's Two Basic Processes of Learning (and why your students are bored and lonely)

So you’ve got some strong learning material — it does a great job of explaining what you want people to learn, uses all your favourite analogies, follows all the coolest cognitive load theory for instructional design. Only one problem — people aren’t learning. Even worse, they seem to be getting bored and giving up. Why?

A man called Illeris described two basic processes at play in every learning situation: interaction between an individual and their environment, and acquisition involving both content and incentive. We can use these processes to analyse why students (or any learners) don’t engage with perfectly good material.

I will begin by framing each process with an example. Next I will introduce some diagrams to depict them visually. Then I will share some of Illeris’s own words. Finally I will share some thoughts on what it means for tech education.

The Processes as Relationships

Illeris describes each process as a relationship.

Interaction: the relationship between an individual and their environment.

Sarah is at a restaurant, eating alone. There is an item on the menu she’s not sure how to pronounce. She does some internal work in order to figure out what to say — perhaps breaking down the sounds or comparing it to words she does know — that’s the individual pole.

She notices the waiter coming over and so quickly settles upon an intended pronunciation. She says it to the waiter, who looks at her with a slightly puzzled expression — that’s the environment.

Slightly embarrassed, she points to the item on the menu. The waiter smiles and pronounces it for her. Sarah smiles and repeats it back. That’s interaction.

I’ve broken them out for that example, but note that the relationship between the individual and their environment is rarely clear cut. That’s why it is framed as a relationship of interaction.

Acquisition: the relationship between content (concepts in the individual’s head) and incentive (drive and motivation).

Let’s zoom in on the mental world and tweak the scenario slightly. Let’s say Sarah is having dinner with a new friend she’d like to impress.

She takes the menu and looks it over. She decides that the Kimchi Bokkumbap looks really good, and decides to order it. However, she isn’t sure how to pronounce it and so starts trying to figure that out. This is the incentive pole — Sarah now has a motivating reason to learn.

She sounds it out mentally. Bo-kum-bap. Is that right? She thinks she’s heard Bibimbap pronounced as Bib-m-bap. Could it be Bok-m-bap? Is that different? This is the content pole — Sarah is engaging with the concepts to attempt to discover an answer.

She glances over to her new friend, who is Chinese. She thinks about asking him, but then cringes, imagining the scenario where he thinks Sarah is asking him because she thinks he is Korean. She doesn’t think that is very likely but it puts her off all the same.

She stares down at her menu. Maybe she should just get the Bibimbap… it’s pretty nice after all, she’s had it before. No — no, this is really silly, she thinks. Just get the Bokkumbap!

The waiter comes over, she makes her order, nothing unexpected happens and she gets the right food. She now knows how to make herself understood, though is still unsure as to whether she pronounced it correctly.

This is the acquisition relationship. Illeris articulates motivation as an emotional domain — related to mood, decisiveness, and commitment. This motivation allows the individual to marshal the cognitive resources necessary to manage the process of learning.

As you can see above, this relationship is also complex, and even more so in combination with the interaction relationship. Sarah’s emotional response to her environment caused her motivation to waver, and she almost gave up the learning entirely. Her determination was strong enough to partially recover, but she avoided interaction by not asking her friend or the waiter — who may well have known the answer.


This is how Illeris diagrams out this framework, with slight amendments from me. It takes a little bit of thinking.

Diagram described below.

Vertically, Illeris appears to be describing two entities (the individual and the environment) in relationship through interaction. However, having ‘content’ and ‘incentive’ as two entities related by acquisition doesn’t quite make sense. Instead, I think Illeris is using a gradient between content and incentive to describe a relationship of combination or interplay.

Here’s another way to illustrate it:

The diagram depicts two circles, one labelled Environment in relation to another called Individual with Interaction. Inside the Individual circle, there are two more circles titled Incentive and Content, this time linked using a line that suggests integration.

Of course, the individual is also a part of their environment! So this diagram is not perfect either.

In his own words

All learning implies the integration of two very different processes, namely an external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural, or material environment, and an internal psychological process of elaboration and acquisition. [This acquisition] is a process of integrated interplay between two equal psychological functions, namely the function of managing the learning content and the incentive function of providing and directing the necessary mental energy that runs the process. 1

In here, ‘content’ doesn’t refer to e.g. an article, but instead:

[…] what is learned. This is usually described as knowledge and skills, but also many other things such as opinions, insight, meaning, attitudes, values, ways of behaviour, methods, strategies, etc.

Illeris describes these two processes, laid out in the ‘T’ configuration above, as forming three Three Dimensions of Learning. I’ll speak about those another time.

What does this mean for tech education?

I will speak about this more after introducing the three dimensions, but in advance of that — we can note certain biases in current thinking.

Firstly, it appears clear that there is a bias towards acquisition over interaction in the focus of tech education, and in particular on content. On an everyday basis, when managers, leaders, and educators are thinking about learning & development they regularly emphasise what must be learned — that is, knowledge, skills, attitudes. A natural conclusion from this is to attempt to write down what you want them to know so that they will know it.

Many ed-tech startups also favour what we might call the ‘textbook’ approach. If we can provide material that contains the right concepts then this will lead to learning and therefore competence. Codecademy, Pluralsight, and O’Reilly follow this approach.

But the textbook approach often gets lacklustre results. Why? Looking at the ‘T’ diagram above — what does an overemphasis on content do? It neglects incentive and interaction.

Educators are not unaware of this. It is why most textbook-style material starts with a valiant attempt to sell you on how transformative the content will be; it’s why Salesforce Trailhead has badges and points; it’s why learning platforms have such aspirational marketing material; it’s why that fucking Duolingo owl won’t leave you alone. They’re all trying to inflate incentive.

But it’s very hard to make it stick — because the interaction story is so poor. You may be familiar with the experience of working through textbook-style material, feeling a bit empty, and maybe even giving up. The environment is impoverished, which has consequences both for the conceptual and incentive sides of acquisition. This is why Freecodecamp is so well-known for their community; it’s why engineers do authentic side-projects to learn rather than just tutorials; it’s one of the reasons why code schools (disclaimer: I work for one) are so much more effective for most people than isolated work; and it’s why most learning takes place in work rather than in a training setting.

For tech education to succeed, both processes — acquisition and interaction — have to have a liveliness to them.

This isn’t easy. There’s a reason why textbook-style education is so popular with providers. Given that the educational environment is usually not the real world — which is usually too complex or dangerous — how do you create a lively and engaging environment that provides authentic incentives for learners?

What do you think? Let me know.

Notes & credits

Cover photo by ngelah on Unsplash

  1. Knud Illeris, A Comprehensive Understanding of Human Learning, found in the book Contemporary Theories of Learning (2018), page 2. ↩︎

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