Cognitive load and effective digital learning
Why should good instructional design focus on reducing extraneous cognitive load?
The conscientious instructional designer has a number of goals for creating quality learning presentations. These goals can be summed up as making learning easier, faster and more engaging or enjoyable. A key focus for the designer must be to reduce the extraneous load – the additional stress placed on a learner by how the material is presented. If your presentation is preventing the working memory from processing new information, then the extraneous load is too heavy and must be reduced.
How much easier, faster, and enjoyable learning is, does depend to an extent on the specific learner and their individual experience and motivation. However, there are intrinsic principles for content delivery that can ensure effective learning for all participants. The main motivation behind these principles is to reduce the extraneous load caused by how the content is presented, and to assist the easy acquisition of learning, essentially applying a set of do’s and don’ts.
In the opening to his book Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Press, 2001), Richard E. Mayer, an American educational psychologist states, ‘People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.’ The ability to combine these two elements effectively in your content is what multimedia tools provide.
However, we also need to be keenly aware of the pitfall of using too many of the options at once. Technology has made it extremely easy to create multi-faceted content, but the results can be overwhelming and distracting. Mayer points out that words can equate to printed text or to spoken instruction, and pictures can be static illustrations or moving animations or video. To prevent these elements from conflicting with each other, and with how our cognitive function absorbs them, we have to carefully balance how we use them.
The 12 principles of multimedia learning
Professor Mayer has done a great deal of work in multimedia learning theory, focusing on how to design multimedia content for optimum learning results. He has developed 12 principles that should be used to shape the design of the best multimedia courses.
The multimedia principle
The coherence principle
The signalling principle
The redundancy principle
The spatial contiguity principle
The temporal contiguity principle
The segmenting principle
The pre-training principle
The modality principle
The personalization principle
The voice principle
The image principle
What these principles boil down to is that for optimal learning to take place, it’s important to present only the necessary information simply and clearly. Draw attention to the key points. Don’t try to do more than one thing at a time – avoid redundancy which burdens the working memory. Keep things together in space and time and use images to illustrate words.
Working closely with these principles will certainly result in top class content delivery which gives the best learning results. And in the end, isn’t that what all stakeholders in the learning process want?