Implications of Cognitive Load Theory for Multimedia Learning (Sweller)

Mayer, R.E. (Ed.) (2005). Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge. [Chapter 2: Implications of Cognitive Load Theory for Multimedia Learning (Sweller)]

Sweller points out that humans often flail in the face of novel problems due to a lack of a central executive in working memory. Accordingly, when designing for learning, “Instruction should act as a substitute for the missing central executive when dealing with novel information and that factor, in turn, determines multimedia instructional principles” (p.19).

Learning is defined as an alteration in long-term memory schema. Schemas are “cognitive constructs that allow multiple elements of information to be categorised as a single element” (p.21). Once a schema has been acquired, further practice over long periods of time can permit it to be processed automatically without conscious control.

Working  memory has two limitations: number of chunks, and a temporal duration. Such limitations serve an evolutionary purpose in that restricting the number of things one can combine and think about at a time might for more timely and efficient cognition. However, instruction should be designed so as to overcome working memory limitations. For example, instruction should make use of the multiple processors (audio/visual) within working memory.

It is also interesting to consider that schema that is fed into working memory from long term memory is not restricted by capacity or duration limitations. “In effect, information in long-term memory vastly expands working memory” (p.24). Chunking depends on long term memory — chunks (or schemas) either reside in long-term memory or are formed using information held there. Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) have even proposed a separate processor, a long-term working  memory.

“Understanding occurs when all relevant elements of information can be processed simultaneously in working memory” (p.25). During learning, elements are organized and combined into schemas in long-term memory. Automation of schema frees up working memory capacity.

The particular schemas one holds in long-term memory determine when and how something should be done. Thus, in a sense, they act as a central executive for working memory. Without an appropriate schema in long-term memory, one is left to perform “random generation followed by effectiveness testing” (not an efficient process). “In its essence, all inquiry-based learning depends on a random generation followed by effectiveness testing procedure. It is likely to be a long, slow, and ineffective procedure for acquiring knowledge” (p.23).

One possible solution for the lack of appropriate schema in the learner is to utilize spoken or written knowledge in the lesson to help guide schema acquisition. Another sensible strategy is to employ direct instructional guidance.

There are 3 types of cognitive load (they are additive):

  1. Extraneous – should heed: worked example, split attention, modality, redundancy, and expertise-reversal effects
  2. Intrinsic
  3. Germane – considered “effective” cognitive load, caused by effortful learning resulting in schema construction and automation. (Ex: providing lots of different examples to illustrate a point)
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