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The Split Attention Effect: A quick guide

The Split Attention Effect: A quick guide

5 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory is fast becoming one of the most talked about theories in education. It offers practical and simple strategies that can be used in the classroom to enhance students’ rates of learning. One of the key elements to understand within this theory is that of the ‘Split Attention Effect’.

To have a decent grasp of Cognitive Load Theory, there are only four main things that you need to know:

  • Working memory is small
  • Long-term memory is large
  • Learning occurs when information is transferred from working memory to long-term memory
  • If working memory is overloaded, this transfer gets blocked, meaning that not much learning can take place

What is the Split Attention Effect?

The Split Attention Effect occurs when students have to refer to two different sources of information simultaneously when learning something. This creates an extra load on their brain as switching between tasks takes time, effort and energy.

It is best thought of as an act of juggling, where each item of information represents one ball. Ask a novice juggler to use too many balls and inevitably some will get dropped. Likewise, a student trying to attend to too multiple sources of information and they will unlikely be unable to process all of it.

Maximise your students’ learning efficiency with Cognitive Load Theory training for your school staff.

What does the research say?

There is a plethora of research surrounding the Split Attention Effect. The majority of it demonstrates where it is most detrimental and how its negative effects transpire. Here is an outline of three studies that caught our eye…

Study #1

In this study, the researchers looked to investigate the Split Attention Effect. They found that:

  • Textual materials should not be presented in both an auditory and written form as having two different version of the same material leads to the Split Attention Effect, hence placing an unnecessary cognitive load on the working memory.
  • If textual materials must be presented in written form, the Split Attention Effect can be minimised if the information is integrated. For example, you can make searching for information in a diagram easier with guides such as colour coding.

Study #2

In this particular study, researchers found more nuanced results, such as, the strategies used to reduce the Split Attention Effect need to be tailored to the individuals’ level of expertise. Students of varying ages and abilities were given texts to read, where one group was given the definition of more difficult words within the lines of text, whilst the other group were given these definitions in a separate list. The researchers found that, for students who were older or of higher ability, giving them definitions in a separate list was more effective. This is because giving them an unneeded definition created an unnecessary cognitive load and reduced comprehension, as they found the integrated definitions difficult to ignore. However, when students were of a lower ability or younger, giving them integrated definitions improved their comprehension, as not having to search for definitions in a separate list stopped the Split Attention Effect from occurring.

Study #3

The researchers in the third study set up two experiments to investigate cognitive load. In the first experiment, participants were presented with information on a milling process, which was either displayed as an integrated interpretational diagram and text, or a separate text and diagram. After testing students on this information, the researchers found that those who received integrated instructions scored considerably higher than those who were given the content separately.

Conventional vs integrated diagrams

How can teachers minimise the Split Attention Effect?

Based on the findings from all the research described above, there are two main ways that teachers can reduce the Split Attention Effect…

Using integrated diagrams

When presented with a conventional diagram, students can experience the split-attention effect. Integrated diagrams allow students to focus all of their attention on one thing, leading to better intake of information. Researchers suggest that when the text is directly within a diagram, students aren’t forced to split their attention between multiple sources.

Evidence found that students who were given information in an integrated diagram took less time to process it than those with a conventional diagram. The latter spent extra time alternating between the instructions and the diagram. Students who were given the integrated diagram had better academic performance, with 22% higher marks on average.

Encouraging efficient note-taking

Taking better notes in class can help improve recall and understanding. Effective note-taking must help students make connections between topics and be a source of quality material for them to review after class. The Cornell Note-Taking Method is an effective way for students to balance paying attention in class and taking down information. To find out more about how to use it, check out our blog on the method.

Essentially, it involves splitting notes in three different parts. During class, students should take down concise notes and summarise the important concepts. They should not write word-for-word what the teacher is saying as they are unlikely to engage with the information as deeply. They can then summarise what they have learnt after the class and make note of any questions they need to ask the teacher to further their understanding. Research has shown that classrooms that implemented this note taking method saw a 10-12% higher class average than the previous term.

Final thoughts

The Split Attention Effect is when students are exposed to too much information and their attention is spread too thin. This can lead to a reduced intake of important information and slowed learning, as student are unable to process so much at once. Teachers can work towards minimising the negative effects of split-attention by introducing integrated diagrams in their teaching. This allows students to focus their attention on what is important. Teachers should also encourage their students to take up an effective method of note-taking. During class, it can be easy to lose track as students are trying to pay attention to what is being said and simultaneously write everything down. Try and teach them to use the Cornell Note-Taking Method to create more efficient learners.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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