The impact of integrated illustrated instructions on student performance and understanding in practical work in physics

By Elaine Regan - March 2011


Haslam, C. Y.. & Hamilton, R. J. (2010). Investigating the use of integrated instructions to reduce the cognitive load associated with doing practical work in secondary school science. International Journal of Science Education32(13), 1715–1737.

Annotated, integrated, illustrated practical instructions result in higher levels of performance on task; lower completion time, task difficulty, and perceived cognitive load; higher relative efficiency score and post-test scores than the conventional instructions; and makes practical work directions easier to understand for students with no prior knowledge of the subject matter.

Practical work (any teaching and learning activity that involves the students in observing or manipulating real objects and materials) is an important part of science education leading to improved achievement, understanding, and attitudes toward science. Instructions for practical activity consist of large amounts of information where students are required to split their attention between instructions (text) and equipment, and can lead to cognitive overload. Cognitive load is the effect on the cognitive processing system resulting from performing a particular task when the amount and complexity of information exceeds working memory capacity. This regularly occurs in practical work scenarios because there is a high level on interactivity between two different media. Consequently, designing effective instructional materials will be greatly enhanced by understanding the impact of cognitive load on pupil learning.

Illustrations have been found to facilitate understanding and learning from texts as they aid the building of mental representations of concepts and decrease cognitive load. This study examined the effect of using integrated, multimedia-illustrated instructions on perceived mental effort, difficulty, and performance. The study divided 96 secondary science students into two treatment groups: one utilized conventional instructions and the other modified instructions that included integrated illustrated instructions, in a practical activity on electricity. Cognitive load was assessed through various methods and showed lower perceptions of task difficulty in students in the modified treatment group, and these students completed the tasks quicker than the conventional group. As the difficulty level of the task increased, so too did the time taken to complete. However, all students in the treatment group completed all the tasks, whereas this was not the case for the conventional group due to the levels of difficulty experienced. This is particularly noteworthy as the conventional group saw the equipment from the beginning of the exercises whereas they were covered for the modified group until the instructions had been read—the absence of the equipment did not slow down these students. The students within the modified treatment group also performed better at the tasks and were more efficient in terms of the mental effort during processing of the task. No gender differences were found in the treatment effect, illustrating a robust treatment not moderated by gender.

Implications from this research include that allowing time for students to read instructions that contain appropriate illustrations of the equipment they will be using may increase understanding, ability to follow instructions, and learning in addition to reducing the time taken to complete it.

This study focused on practical work in physics and may not be generalizable to other areas of science because, as the author points out, concepts in physics are particularly difficult for students.