Christof Van Nimwegen

Christof Van Nimwegen

Christof van Nimwegen

Abstract Christof van Nimwegen

Session 3: Disruptive or Seamless

Matching Learners and Technology II - Disruptive or seamless: HCI in eLearning

This session will be held in German. In case of expected language barriers, please inform us via e-mail. A solution will be found!

Computers are omnipresent in education and training. A recurring design guideline for user interfaces of software is to minimize “user memory load”. The working memory of a user must be relieved so that a maximum of cognitive resources can be devoted to the main task. In user interfaces, one can distinguish between systems that require users to internalize task related information needed to carry out a task and those that externalize it, thus guiding the user (wizards, prompts, menus etc.). It is often assumed that minimizing user memory load can be achieved by the latter (externalizing information onto the interface). Although externalizing certain information might indeed relieve working memory, we argue that at the same time, it might also have negative consequences on motivational and metacognitive factors during learning, in the sense that it discourage planning, understanding and knowledge acquisition.

We empirically studied the issue of externalization in a series of controlled experiments. Our main question is whether when requiring participants to internalize, which might seem like a more unfriendly system (more mental work required), nevertheless leads to better performance and knowledge than when it is externalized. As a theoretical framework we used Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), which provides guidelines to assist in the presentation of information in a manner that encourages learner activities that optimize performance and is concerned with limitations of Working Memory.

In a series of experiments participants had to solve problems that by themselves are not so difficult, but which nevertheless demand proactiveness in coming up with a solution. The software (a semi-mathematical game and a constraint-satisfaction task) existed in 2 versions (internalization vs. externalization) and performance with the software versions was systematically compared.

It showed that with less support (internalization) performance was better. Participants behaved more plan-based, were more proactive and ready to make inferences, which resulted in more direct and economical solutions, better strategies, and better imprinting of knowledge. This knowledge was easier to recall later on, less vulnerable to interruptions, and better applicable to transfer situations.

We conclude that understanding reactions to interface information is crucial in designing software aimed at education and learning, in order to let it reach its educational target. To facilitate active learning and provoke better performance, designers should take care in giving users (too) much assistance by externalizing certain types of information. Our findings can contribute to building bridges between cognitive science, human computer interaction and current educational practices and can be valuable in the development of applications in the realms of education, multimedia learning or game based learning.


  1. The way interfaces function CAN have an influence on cognitive processes
    If an interface gives a user the feeling that he is being assisted directly by for example limiting choices, contemplation about the learning material can be discouraged. Learners must be seduced into behave more plan-based and be provoked to internalize certain information themselves, which in turn makes them more proactive and ready to make inferences. When interfaces accomplish in doing this, learned knowledge is easier to recall at a future point in time, less vulnerable to severe interruptions in e.g. a workflow, and better transferable to situations where the interface, the task, or both are different.
  2. A manifest for human reasoning
    One has to delve into human nature, and be aware of the mechanisms that are natural to us, there is nothing people like better than the feeling that things are being done for them, and in many cases, this can be exactly what is desired. However, people are NOT passive dumb beings by nature. The interface should facilitate use, and from there on attempt to PROVOKE meaningful cognitive processes, not discourage cognitive processes by taking over mental steps. Users are not simply passive objects but can become active agents who wish to accomplish tasks, to understand what is underlying and are willing to reason and explore.
  3. Context of future use:Interface design for learning and instructional matter is a question of balance
    A learning situation is NOT a metro ticket vending machine, or an ecommerce website where the goals is fast and easy product sale for the masses. When building interface to learning material, of course, some basic degree of usability (regarding controls, action flow etc.) should be implemented as long as it does not interfere with cognitive processes the wrong way. It can be wise to sometimes make a system not as assisting and guiding as one is used to. Human-computer interaction designers should acknowledge these considerations (beyond plain usability) even when they go against common sense.
    Balancing ease on one side and NOT guiding users too much depends on the task context that follows learning. When for example a process operator learns the functioning and order of processes of e.g. the steps to shut down a part of an industrial factory, he must know this procedural knowledge in such a way that it can be completely reproduced in a situation where the system they work with has broken down and do it WITHOUT that system. Likewise, when transfer of knowledge is the aim (being able to apply knowledge in another situation). In for example language or physics learning, the stakes are different.

Homepage Christof van Nimwegen.