How multimedia can improve learning

To show how a student might use all types of memory when learning, the report cites a female student in a science lab, working as part of a team on the development of an architectural design. All sensory activity is involuntarily encoded in her memory through dual sensory channels: The student’s verbal/text memory might include side conversations, noise from other teams, and so on, while the visual/spatial memory might include the current architectural drawings on the screen or paper, facial expressions, and physical movements by others.

Only if she consciously considers each sensory input, or contemplates further about a particular side conversation (such as about the traffic patterns associated with various building designs), will the memory move from short to long term. As the student considers this side conversation about traffic patterns, she will be able to cue up memories from her personal experiences stored in long-term memory that have enriched her thinking.

It’s important to understand that while this learning is occurring, the student could become distracted by something (such as an office announcement) and might experience “attention blink,” thereby losing sight of everything else around her owing to cognitive overload.

This cognitive overload won’t prevent the student from continuing to register input involuntarily, but these experiences will be stored only in short-term memory and so won’t last long.

Furthermore, as the student consciously considers each sensory input, her cognitive control function limits attention to serial consideration of ideas and concepts–meaning that her cognitive ability is slowed down and multitasking is inefficient. Thinking, decision-making, and cueing of long-term memories require the central cognitive processor, which only works serially. Therefore, the more sensory input there is, the greater the risk of overload–and the greater the risk of leaving information out of long-term memory.

The report concludes its overview of cognitive science by citing the principles listed by the National Academy of Sciences from its 2001 publication, How People Learn:

* Student preconceptions of curriculum must be engaged in the learning process. Only when the student has the opportunity to correct misconceptions, build on prior knowledge, and create schemas of understanding a topic will learning be optimized.

* Expertise is developed through deep understanding. Students learn more when the concepts are personally meaningful to them. This translates into a need for authentic learning in classrooms–deep learning, relevant to those outside the classroom, and involving students’ use of the key ideas in a production.

* Learning is optimized when students develop “metacognitive” strategies. To be metacognitive is to be constantly “thinking about one’s own thinking.” Students who are metacognitive are students who approach problems by automatically trying to predict outcomes, explaining ideas to themselves, noting and learning from failures, and activating prior knowledge.

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