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Research for Practitioners: Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load

by Angela van Barneveld

October 24, 2012

Research

by Angela van Barneveld

October 24, 2012

“As instructional designers, we have to know what cognitive requirements our learning designs impose and ensure that our learners can meet those requirements. We don’t want to distract the learners from the essential learning task at hand. All aspects of design should focus on adding value to the learning experience.”

Let’s start with an experience that may sound familiar. Picture it—I was sitting in a room awaiting a senior colleague’s presentation. Up comes a static text-based slide with what I am sure was every font type, font color, and font size available in the software. I could not attend to the content of the slide because I was so distracted by all this other “stuff” that added no value to anything. And this was not even multimedia. It was single media. IMAGINE if animation had been included. I’m sure I would have had a seizure. So here we go!

The study

Mayer, Richard E. & Moreno, Roxana (2003). “Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning.” Educational Psychologist, 38(1).

http://chua2.fiu.edu/nursing/anesthesiology/courses/ngr%206715%20insttech/slides/reduce_cognitive_load_in_me_mayer_moreno2003.pdf; retrieved 9/22/12.

The question

How do we use words and pictures to foster meaningful learning?

I’ve added a precursor here (Table 1) just to get us all on the same page. This describes three different views of how the human mind deals with the cognitive load presented by multimedia learning:

1.

Dual Channel

Humans possess separate information processing channels for verbal and visual material.

2.

Limited Capacity

There is only a limited amount of processing capacity available in the verbal (ears) and visual (eyes) channels.

3.

Active Processing

Learning requires substantial cognitive processing in the verbal and visual channels.

Table 1: Three assumptions about how the mind works in multimedia learning

The method

This study is a synthesis of years of research experiments about multimedia instruction (presenting words and pictures) to support learning. Learners were presented with five multimedia learning scenarios that included variations on the use and placement of words and pictures to determine the impact on subsequent problem-solving tasks where the learned content was to be transferred and used in a new scenario. They accessed a multimedia encyclopedia to find the content (e.g., how lightning works), engaged in a short learning experience, and then completed a problem-solving transfer test.

The results

The cheat sheet below (Table 2) summarizes the design situations that contribute to overload, the proposed solution, and the impact on learning.

The overload situation—the learner is presented with…

The solution (nine ways)

Learners understand the multimedia presentation better when…

Too much visual information (e.g., animation and text on the same screen, learners could choose to attend to only some but not all of the content).

Move some need-to-know information from the visual channel (eyes) to the auditory (ears).

Words are presented as narration versus on-screen text.

Content in appropriate channels, but the content is complex and the pace is too fast.

Break the content into smaller segments and allow for learner control over the pace of the segments.

 

If segmentation is not possible, provide a short pre-training module describing the various components of the topic.

Content is presented in learner-controlled segments rather than a continuous stream.

 

They know the names and actions of the components of the topic/system under study.

Need-to-know content as well as non-essential content (e.g., background music).

Remove non-essential content.

 

If removing the non-essential content is not possible, provide cues for learners on what content to focus on.

Interesting but non-essential content is removed.

 

Cues and signals on how to process the information are provided.

Essential need-to-know content presented in a confusing way (e.g., graphics and the corresponding text are not placed close to each other on-screen).

Align graphics and text on the screen (text within the graphic or right next to it).

 

Remove concurrent presentation animation, narration, and on-screen text (redundancy).

Printed words are positioned near the corresponding graphics.

 

Words are presented as narration versus narration + on-screen text.

Essential information on the same topic is displayed on successive screens (e.g., narrated description on the first screen and then animation on the next screen).

Synchronize the related visual and auditory content to appear together.

 

If synchronization is not possible, make sure learners possess the spatial skills to hold images or words across successive screens.

Animation and narration are presented together rather than successively.

 

Multimedia design is aligned with spatial ability design.

Table 2: Summary of overload, solution, and best practice

Implications for eLearning design

First, just because you CAN add a whole lot of whiz-bang into your multimedia instruction doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Second, as instructional designers we have to know what cognitive requirements our learning designs impose and ensure that our learners can meet those requirements. We don’t want to distract the learners from the essential learning task at hand. All aspects of design should focus on adding value to the learning experience.


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