For Whom Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? (Mayer & Sims)

Mayer, R.E., Sims, V.K. (1994). For whom is a picture worth a thousand words? Extensions of a dual-coding theory of multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 389-401.

In this study, the authors test the boundaries of the contiguity effect, which states that animation and narration are most effective when presented in a choreographed, simultaneous manner, as opposed to sequentially. They first mention previous studies which showed that individuals with high prior knowledge in the content domain of interest can compensate for an incomplete presentation by retrieving relevant information from long-term memory. Thus, the contiguity effect may not apply to those with relevant domain knowledge.

This paper focuses on another important factor: spatial ability. The authors present two hypotheses: 1) Ability-as-compensator: even in the case of unsynchronized presentations, high spatial ability learners may be able to keep images in working memory long enough to still make referential connections to the verbal system. 2) Ability-as-enhancer: high-spatial ability may not be enough to compensate for an unsynchronized presentation; however, the cognitive benefit does allow enhanced ability to make referential connections during a synchronized presentation. The low-spatial ability learner, however, is sunk regardless of the timing of the animation and narration elements.

In the end, the authors produce findings supporting the ability-as-enhancer hypothesis: “high-spatial ability students who receive concurrent presentation of animation and narration generated approximately 50% more creative solutions on transfer problems than did high-spatial ability students who received successive presentation with no instruction” (p.396). Therefore, the contiguity effect is strong for high-spatial ability learners and weak for low-spatial ability learners. It should also be noted that while a transfer test was used to measure learning outcome, there was no significant different in recall among the concurrent and successive groups.

In summary, high-spatial ability, low relevant domain knowledge learners benefit most from a coordinated presentation involving pictures and words. Also, it was previously reported that learners with high relevant domain knowledge do well with both types of presentations. Taken together, such findings are important to the field because they add nuance and specificity to an otherwise “general” design principle.

The authors describe their interpretation/extension of Paivio’s DCT model. Performance depends on the first three connections being formed. Therefore, instructional materials should be designed so as to promote such connections.


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