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Using digital media to enhance educational transfer

3 min read


Educational transfer is the point of education, right? If students can’t use what we’ve taught them in new, real-life situations, then we end up with students who are good at school and bad at life.

Recent research from National Academies Press reminds us that one of the best ways to promote transfer is to balance students’ cognitive load while they consume or create multimedia. Every time students are presented with a new idea or situation, the following three processes happen simultaneously:

  • Extraneous processing — This type of processing handles all of the “extra stuff” that occurs within a situation. Extraneous processing is not related to the task at hand, but it drains brainpower for kids. Consider what it would be like to write a drum beat in a bowling alley. Filtering out all those crashing pins would certainly take some work!
  • Essential processing — This is the processing that is directly related to the task at hand. It is the basic comprehension of the problem. Think of this as the “main idea” of the learning situation. This is brainpower well spent.
  • Generative processing — This is the most important type of processing. This is where students make sense of a situation for themselves. In doing this, students commit concepts to long-term memory where they can be retrieved for future situations. (This type of processing directly promotes educational transfer.)

In today’s digitally enhanced world, we often ask students to create or consume something rooted in multimedia. This allows our students to experience many different versions of the same idea. However, how often do we consider which specific multimedia designs actually balance cognitive load and promote long lasting learning and transfer?

Check out this awesome chart from National Academies Press that summarizes 12 simple, research-based strategies for multimedia design. Given this, here are my three goals for 2013 regarding the creation and consumption of digital media with educators and students.

1. Use words in a conversational style. Although tradition has made me think that formal language is required when I interact with educators and students, this may actually inhibit their ability to personalize and transfer what I say. In short, I’m going to use kid-friendly language as much as possible with all audiences I serve.

2. Pairing graphics and narration without on-screen text. I love words. I really do. However, I’m going to try to use less text when creating and consuming multimedia. Even labels and citations will be off limits this year. (I’ll put citations at the end, of course!)

3. Adding more and more pictures. I want to increase the number of pictures I share (in my writing, my online courses, my workshops, my model lessons, etc.) by a factor of 3. Providing pictures with narration assists generative processing, so it will be well worth the effort!

Given that we want to develop students who will be able to solve problems that don’t exist yet, educational transfer is a very worthy goal. Promoting it via multimedia design is an important step for connected educators.

If you’re interested in reading the entire research report recently released from the National Academies Press, it can be downloaded here for free. (It’s a great read!)

Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson) is a learner, leader and teacher. She is a consultant for Authentic Education and an Edcamp organizer. Swanson is also a Google Certified Teacher, a Twitter teacher and an Edublog Award nominee.