Adaptive diagrams: Handing control over to the learner to manage split-attention online

Shirley Agostinho*, Sharon Tindall-Ford, Kylie Roodenrys

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Based on cognitive load theory, it is well known that when studying a diagram that includes explanatory text, optimal learning occurs when the text is physically positioned close to the diagram as it eliminates the need for learners to split their attention between the two sources of information. What is not known is the effect on learning when learners manage split-attention for themselves when presented with a separated diagram and explanatory text. This study focuses on this new research direction by examining how learners can self-manage cognitive load through the physical manipulation of digital materials. Physical manipulation refers to moving text objects in digital materials to connect related pieces of textual information to a diagram, thus adapting the diagram to reduce split-attention. Fifty-two university students participated in one of two experiments. Experiment 1 (N = 34) investigated whether learners who were guided to self-manage split-attention by moving text objects on a screen displaying instructional material with evident split-attention were able to reduce split-attention and thus outperform learners who were provided split-source materials. Experiment 2 (N = 18) collected verbal think-aloud protocols to uncover the students' learning processes with the materials. Results confirmed the split-attention effect thus replicating this effect in a digital domain. Furthermore, whilst the self-managed condition did not significantly outperform the split-attention condition, the added task for learners to move text boxes to relevant aspects of the diagram did not have an adverse effect on learning, as the self-managed condition performed as well as (and for a recall task slightly better than) the split-attention condition. The verbal protocols highlighted that in order for learners to successfully self-manage split-attention training and guidance needs to be more extensive and explicit. Implications for further research for this new research direction in cognitive load theory are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52-62
Number of pages11
JournalComputers and Education
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive load theory
  • Self-management of cognitive load
  • Split-attention


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