Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Using Cognitive Load Theory to Tailor Instruction to Levels of Accounting Students' Expertise

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Using Cognitive Load Theory to Tailor Instruction to Levels of Accounting Students' Expertise

Article excerpt


Cognitive load theory has been extensively used to investigate the implications of human cognitive architecture for instruction and learning in different domains (Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga, 2011). This instructional theory draws on various characteristics of the major components of human cognitive architecture, primarily working memory as a conscious information processor and long-term memory as our knowledge base, to advance teaching and learning techniques. The theory recognises the limited capacity of working memory (Miller, 1956; Baddeley, 1992) when dealing with novel information as well as the critical role of available knowledge structures in long-term memory for learning and performance (De Groot, 1965; Chase & Simon, 1973). Together, these two factors determine the magnitude of working memory load which is essentially cognitive load.

Tailoring the design of instructional procedures and formats to levels of learner prior knowledge is one of the essential recommendations of this theory based on research on the expertise reversal effect (Kalyuga, 2007). This research has demonstrated that different instructional methods are suitable for learners with different levels of expertise in a task domain. Therefore, the cognitive load consequences of using various instructional methods can be optimized if these methods are intentionally tailored to individual learners' levels of expertise (learner-tailored or adaptive instruction). Any type of effective practical implementation of individualized, adaptive, learner-tailored instruction today requires the use of modern technology. Without the use of technology, adaptive instruction methods have usually been limited to individual or small group face to face teaching. The experiments in this study rely on the most widely used technology in the accounting profession--the Excel spreadsheet. This study's adaptive alteration of instructional methods on a large scale basis is substantially enabled by spreadsheet technology-based learning environments.

The expertise reversal effect

The expertise reversal effect (Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, & Sweller, 2003; Kalyuga, 2007) recognises the differential effectiveness of instructional methods and techniques according to the level of a person's expertise or prior knowledge. This effect provides a theoretical basis for suggesting that less knowledgeable learners (e.g., novices) should be provided with a high degree of instructional support for their learning activities. On the other hand, relatively more knowledgeable learners (e.g., experts) should be provided with a lower level of assistance thus allowing them to use their previously developed schemas for guiding problem solving activities. Most versions of the effect occur when less knowledgeable learners perform better after instruction with more guidance while more knowledgeable learners perform better following instruction that includes less guidance.

The main instructional implication of the expertise reversal effect within a cognitive load framework is the need to adapt instructional methods to varying levels of learner expertise (e.g., Kalyuga & Sweller 2005; Kalyuga 2007). Kalyuga and Sweller (2004; 2005) investigated adaptive instruction through the use of a rapid test of expertise that allowed their instructional materials to be dynamically altered as learners' expertise changed during the experimental session. This research provided strong evidence in support of adaptive instruction with the learner-adapted instruction group significantly outperforming the randomly assigned instruction group. Rapid evaluations of learner expertise were made throughout the learning session with instructional methods changed as deemed appropriate by the underlying expertise reversal effect.

The need for learner-tailored instruction was discussed in earlier studies by Tobias (1989). The effects of different methods of adaptive learning task selection in computer-based training for air traffic control were also investigated by Camp, Paas, Rikers, and van Merrienboer (2001). …

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