Cognitive load and the imagination effect

Wayne Leahy*, John Sweller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)


When presented with a procedure or concept to learn, imagining the procedure or concept may be an effective instructional technique compared to conventional studying, thus generating an imagination effect. However, it was hypothesized that the importance of learning through imagining as an instructional technique depends on modes of presentation. Experiment 1 tested adults studying or imagining contour maps as participants and was designed to verify the generality of the imagination effect. Imagination instructions were superior to study instructions on subsequent test questions. Experiment 2 further investigated the effect by comparing much younger students (Grade 4), studying or imagining temperature/time graphs presented in either a split-attention (spatially separated diagram and text) or an integrated (spatially combined diagram and text) format. Results on a subsequent test indicated that the Grade 4 students found imagining beneficial to their learning, compared with studying the material but the effect was only obtained using an integrated rather than a split-attention format. Experiment 3 was conducted to obtain verbal protocols from Grade 4 imagination and study groups using the same instructional materials to throw light on the cognitive mechanisms behind the imagination effect.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)857-875
Number of pages19
JournalApplied Cognitive Psychology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2004
Externally publishedYes


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