Do novice and more knowledgeable students benefit equally from the same instructional material? Does the instructor need to guide the learning process, or can students be left alone to learn for themselves? These and similar questions researchers worldwide are trying to answer, including those that investigate under the frameworks of cognitive load theory and the cognitive theory of multimedia learning.
In our laboratory at the Institute of Education, Center for Advanced Research in Education, Universidad de Chile, we are also trying to answer these questions. We have recently published a review article with researchers from the US, the Netherlands, Australia, and Chile. We reviewed different strategies that have been usually investigated as methods that topic experts (e.g., teachers, instructors, and instructional designers) can use to optimise their educational materials. These guides for experts assume that students are novices regarding the learning topic. In contrast, we also considered when students get more knowledgeable in the topic, and they can attempt these strategies themselves.
One strategy, known as the multimedia principle, recommends that instructors include visualisations (e.g., illustrations, static pictures, animations, videos) to complement the textual information. Complementing spoken or written text with visualisations helps learners produce an adequate mental image to understand the topic. When students get more expertise in the topic, they can attempt the multimedia strategy, for example, by generating (partially or wholly) their own drawings or visualisations to complement textual materials.
Another strategy, known as the redundancy effect (similar to the coherence principle), recommends that instructors remove non-essential information for learning, such as secondary anecdotes and narratives. This strategy also discourages adding sounds, animations, or similar extras to grab attention away from the main learning topic. Basically, less is more. More knowledgeable learners benefit when attempting this strategy by generating textual or visual summaries of the learning topic.
A third strategy, known as the signalling principle, recommends that instructors include signals cueing the essential information. For example, instructors can point or include arrows that signal the most critical areas to be learned. Also, the strategy recommends including signals that show relationships between different learning elements, for example, between text and images. More expert learners can try this strategy themselves, for example, by underlining or highlighting the most important information. Also, knowledgeable students can attempt to find relationships between the learning elements, and cue them (e.g., using the same colour in an image and its corresponding text).
The last strategy, known as the transient information effect or segmenting principle, recommends that instructors segment long animations or videos into shorter versions. The idea is that these shorter dynamic visualisations include intervals without learning information, which students can use for resting or rehearsing. When learners know more about the contents, they can stop or pause the visualisations by themselves, so they manage their resting or rehearsing breaks before carrying on watching.
Two final messages for teachers and instructors. First, foster these strategies for learning, separately or simultaneously, because there is ample evidence supporting them. Second, continuously assess the students’ knowledge level, as this is the key variable to determine whether these strategies should be managed by instructors or learners.
Juan Cristóbal Castro-Alonso, PhD is an associate researcher at the Institute of Education, Center for Advanced Research in Education at the Universidad de Chile.