Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning — Ch. 21 (Kalyuga)

Mayer, R.E. (Ed.) (2005). Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge.
Chapter 21: Prior Knowledge Principle in Multimedia Learning

Experienced or high-knowledge learners possess substantial knowledge in the concept domain of interest and are involved in learning more advanced information in this domain. Evidence presented in this chapter suggest that multimedia design principles for this type of learner should be different from those for low-knowledge or novice learners.

In general, whether or not a multimedia design principle applies to instructional material depends largely on the prior knowledge of the learner; this is also called the prior knowledge principle. (Ex: the imagining technique is more effective for expert learners compared to novices; for expert learners, narrated explanations may become redundant and reduce learning).

An expertise reversal effect occurs when high-information instruction is beneficial for novices, but disadvantageous for more expert learners. (It should be noted that experts do not necessarily perform worse than novices; rather, researchers compared the relative performance of experts subjected to high vs. low-information instruction). This effect is an example of an aptitude-treatment interaction between learner characteristics and instructional treatment. Despite the long tradition of ATI research, Kalyuga comments that “few instructional design research studies and their recommendations show explicitly how to use the ATI approach in practice. It is important not just to demonstrate an expertise reversal effect (or other examples of an ATI), but to investigate new instructional procedures and techniques that will deal with it.” (p.332).

A possible reason for the expertise reversal effect is that the mental model that the learner spontaneously brings to the experience may contradict the model presented in the instructional unit. The cognitive conflict and the resources necessary to reconcile them may produce significant cognitive overload. Similarly, the presence of unnecessary information may interfere with retrieval and application of available schemas. Forcing experts to construct already acquired schemas represents a redundant activity that may overload working memory.

One of the problems contributing to the lack of optimization strategies is the lack of appropriate measures of levels of expertise in a domain. Questionnaires and rating scales of familiarity are too coarse-grained and lack diagnostic power.

How do expert and novice learners differ?

Prior knowledge determines how information is processed; provides a framework for future information to be processed and “understood.” Also, “…the schematic knowledge base held in long-term memory is the most critical characteristic of competent performance in any subject area” (p.333).

  • Successful learners used graphic information in a time zone map in a different way (used graphics more and concentrated on “relevant” information) than unsuccessful learners (Schnotz, Picard, & Hron, 1993).
  • Meteorologists constructed rich mental models from weather maps, while novices focused on surface spatial features of the maps (Lowe, 1995).

The prevailing activity of novices should be the construction of new schemas (so instructional materials must support that). As learners acquire understanding, they will be retrieving lower level or partial schemas, so instruction stripped of previously acquired information becomes more appropriate and cognitively efficient.

Implications for instructional design

Instructional design should respond to changing expertise levels of the user. High-information/structure features should be gradually replaced by low-information/structure features as appropriate (related to scaffolding). Researchers recommend the faded worked-out example technique, the guidance fading effect, and the isolated-interacting elements instructional technique.


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