Effects of prior knowledge and spatial ability on learning outcomes and cognitive load associated with rich and lean multimedia presentation.

Wilkinson, Diana L., Ph.D., The University of Kansas, 2004.


Who benefits from multimedia learning under what conditions? This study investigates prior knowledge of content and spatial ability on learning outcomes from rich/lean multimedia presentation. Mayer's notion of active learning, Paivio's dual coding and Sweller's cognitive load were among theories influencing this investigation. Control condition observed presentations of lean media consisting of textual content illustrated with static images, while experimental condition observed rich media presentations of dynamic animation/video with narrative voice-over.

Participants included 141 working adults, screened for self-perceived strength in science. The content for this study was drawn from topics concerning future technologies, Biomimicry and Nanotechnology, so that very few participants would have formed preconceived ideas regarding the content. All subjects were exposed to both topics. Both topics introduced new concepts. Nanotechnology was visually-intense and procedural; demonstrating a virtual reality interface to an Atomic Force Microscope. Biomimicry was more verbally-intense and theoretical; including discussions about using natural systems as models for human-engineered designs.

Multiple regression and paired sample t-tests were used to analyze this data. Prior knowledge was the only significant factor able to explain variability of knowledge retention for the nanoManipulator content (F(1,111) = 27.06, R 2 = .20, p < .000), while prior knowledge and spatial ability controlled by English as a first language contributed significantly to explaining variance of knowledge retention for Biomimicry content (F(3,109) = 7.14, R 2 = .16, p < .000).

Rich and lean media format differed significantly for both nanoManipulator (p < .035) and Biomimicry (p < .015) content on cognitive load, and both main and interaction effects were found (F(3,222) = 7.25, R 2 = .09, p = .000). For nanoManipulator content, lean media (M = 12.64) had a lower cognitive load than rich media (M = 13.61). In contrast for Biomimicry content, lean media (M = 12.64) imposed a higher cognitive load than rich media (M = 11.41). Additional findings are reported.

Future research should use representative, generalizable samples, increase sample size, and test individual differences in addition to prior knowledge and spatial ability in concert with different instructional designs and different types of content often presented as multimedia presentation.