jump to navigation

Instructional Design and Human Cognitive Architecture February 20, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
Tags: , ,

 from Dr José Hanham

In this post José Hanham explores contemporary research on the human brain and memory to identify effective pedagogical approaches which enhance the learning of young people.

In my previous blog (see Minimal Guidance and Direct Instruction – July 2010) I mentioned that educational theories, such as constructivism (Bruner, 1961), were developed at a time when we had a very limited understanding of the human brain and human memory. Empirical evidence to support the efficacy of constructivist teaching has never been strong (see Mayer 2004), which, in part, may be attributed to the fact that constructivist theory does not take into account the memory structures that comprise human cognitive architecture.

The term ‘human cognitive architecture’ refers to the memory structures, sensory memory, working (short-term) memory, and long term memory, which have been hypothesized as fundamental to how learners think, learn and solve problems. A key feature of human cognitive architecture is that it comprises a limited working memory (our consciousness), which can only deal with 2 to 3 elements of new information at time, and a long term memory (our unconsciousness), which can hold an unlimited of number of elements (schemas) on a relatively permanent basis (Sweller, 2004). Over the last two decades a number of educational researchers (e.g., Sweller, 1999) have carried out a large number of experimental studies on how best to overcome the limitations of working memory. In the remainder of this blog I am going to share some of the findings that have emerged from research on human cognitive architecture.

In the early 1990s, Chandler and Sweller (1991, 1992) found that when learners were required to split their attention between two related sources of information, that is, two pieces of information that are unintelligible in isolation, this process placed a heavy load on a learner’s already limited working memory resources. Examples of split-attention include learners having to mentally integrate information contained in diagrams, which are placed separately from their associated formulas (see Year 9 Maths textbooks), or a second language learner having to look up a word in a glossary placed in the back of the textbook in order to understand a sentence in an earlier part of the book.  Physically integrating information previously placed separately was identified by Chandler and Sweller (1991, 1992), as a superior alternative to split-source instructions.

Another alternative approach to dealing with the split-attention phenomenon is the dual modality approach, which has been shown to be particularly effective in multimedia learning (Mousavi, Low, & Sweller, 1995; Tindall-Ford, Chandler & Sweller, 1997). As mentioned previously, human working memory is limited. The dual modality approach is an instructional technique designed specifically for increasing the effective capacity of working memory.  Our working memory contains two partially separate sub-systems (or channels), one for dealing with audio information, and one for processing visual information. Researchers (e.g., Baddeley, 1992) have hypothesized that working memory can process a considerably larger amount of information when information is presented in a dual mode format (i.e., some information is presented in audio form and some information is presented in visual form) than when information presented using in a single mode. However, it is important to note that dual mode instruction is unlikely to be effective if the audio component is too complex or when one source of information is intelligible in isolation and the other source is simply redundant (for example, presenting a visual image of a square to a Year 3 student and having an associated audio message explicitly stating that the image being viewed is in fact a square).

The redundancy effect  (Sweller & Chandler, 1994) is another instructional phenomenon identified in research on human cognitive architecture. The redundancy effect usually occurs when two sources of information, which are intelligible in isolation, are presented in slightly different forms. A familiar example would be when an instructor simply reads, word for word, the contents of an overhead or Power-point slide.  It is often mistakenly believed that reading from an overhead consolidates student learning. Yet, research (Sweller & Chandler, 1994) has found that this process requires the learner to deal with extraneous information, which places an unnecessary burden on working memory. The most effective way to deal with redundancy is to simply remove the identified redundant information. Please note, some texts such as poems or excerpts of plays need to be visually presented, and read aloud, in order to be effectively understood.

It is important to note that two of the instructional design effects briefly described here, split-attention (integrated instruction) and dual-mode instruction are most effective when instructing novices. Integrated instruction and dual-mode instruction have been shown to be problematic when used on expert learners (Kalyuga, Chandler & Sweller, 2000). In my next blog I will focus on instructional techniques developed specifically to cater for expert learners.


Baddeley, A. (1992). Working Memory, Science, 255, 556-559.  Bruner, J. S. (1961). The art of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31,21–32.  Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 8, 293-332.  Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1992). The split-attention effect as a factor in instructional design. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62, 233-246.  Kalyuga, S., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2000). Incorporating learner experience into the design of multimedia instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 126-136. Mayer, R. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 14–19.  Mousavi, S. Y., Low, R., & Sweller, J. (1995). Reducing cognitive load by mixing auditory and visual presentation modes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 319-334.  Sweller, J. (1999). Instructional design in technical areas. Camberwell, Australia: ACER Press.  Sweller, J. (2004). Instructional design consequences of an analogy between evolution by natural selection and human cognitive architecture. Instructional Science, 32, 9–31.  Sweller, J. & Chandler, P. (1994). Why some material is difficult to learn. Cognition and Instruction, 12, 185-233.  Tindall-Ford, S. Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1997). When two sensory modes are better than one. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 3, 257-287.

José Hanham is a Lecturer in Educational Psychology and Youth Studies at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He primarily teaches in the secondary education program.


No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: