Avoiding the Split-Attention Effect

Our working memories can hold roughly 5 to 7 chunks of information at any one time. In young adults, it’s more like 3 to 5  (Cowan, 2010). Add to that an ever shrinking attention span, thanks to social media, and what do you get?  A serious need to design instruction that reduces cognitive load.

Attention goes hand-in-hand with working memory, and when attention is divided in learning (i.e. between text and graphics), you get the split-attention effect. Split-attention puts an extra burden on the working memory, and should be avoided when designing instruction.

The following example illustrates the split-attention effect in non-interactive instructional materials. From the NoodleTools: Show Me© Information Literacy Modules:




Here’s a simple way to resolve the split-attention effect with that example. Notice how the instructional text and graphics are integrated:




Jing allowed me to easily integrate the instructional text and graphics in the NoodleTools example. And it’s free.

‘Free’ is not always the best for integrating text and graphics in interactive tutorials though, especially for simulations such as database or catalog navigation. Take the free Guide on the Side tool for example (from the University of Arizona). It was designed to allow “librarians to quickly and easily create online, interactive tutorials that are based on the principles of authentic and active learning.” But, it’s a classic example of the split-attention effect.

See below:




While I do greatly appreciate the attempt to make a free, and easy-to-use tool for creating interactive tutorials, free just doesn’t cut it here. A self-paced tutorial that is taking place in an ‘authentic’ environment can be a recipe for disaster – a lot of weird things can go wrong in an uncontrolled instructional environment.

The easiest way I know of making interactive tutorials that eliminate the split-attention effect is through tools such as Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate. These both require an investment of time and money. Articulate is by far the easier one to jump into quickly, but Captivate is cheaper. It’s also possible to create a simulated tutorial in Flash, but that definitely requires more work and know-how.

Good instructional design avoids split-attention whenever possible. And that is even more important when designing for the limited working memories and attention spans of young adults.


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