Date of Award

Winter 2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


STEM Education & Professional Studies


Instructional Design & Technology

Committee Director

Gary R. Morrison

Committee Member

Ginger S. Watson

Committee Member

Alexander L. Godunov


The purpose of this study was to introduce an instructional technique for teaching complex tasks in physics, test its effectiveness and efficiency, and understand cognitive processes taking place in learners' minds while they are exposed to this technique. The study was based primarily on cognitive load theory (CLT). CLT determines the amount of total cognitive load imposed on a learner by a learning task as combined intrinsic (invested in comprehending task complexity) and extraneous (wasteful) cognitive load. Working memory resources associated with intrinsic cognitive load are defined as germane resources caused by element interactivity that lead to learning, in contrast to extraneous working memory resources that are devoted to dealing with extraneous cognitive load. However, the amount of learner's working memory resources actually devoted to a task depends on how well the learner is engaged in the learning environment. Since total cognitive load has to stay within limits of working memory capacity, both extraneous and intrinsic cognitive load need to be reduced. In order for effective learning to occur, the use of germane cognitive resources should be maximized. In this study, the use of germane resources was maximized for two experimental groups by providing a learning environment that combined problem-solving procedure with prompts to self-explain with and without completion problems.

The study tested three hypotheses and answered two research questions. The first hypothesis predicting that experimental treatments would reduce total cognitive load was not supported. The second hypothesis predicting that experimental treatments would increase performance was supported for the self-explanation group only. The third hypothesis that tested efficiency measure as adopted from Paas and van Merriënboer (1993) was not supported. As for the research question of whether the quality of self-explanations would change with time for the two experimental conditions, it was determined that time had a positive effect on such quality. The research question that investigated learners' attitudes towards the instructions revealed that experimental groups understood the main idea behind the suggested technique and positively reacted to it. The results of the study support the conclusions that (a) prompting learners to self-explain while independently solving problems can increase performance, especially on far transfer questions; (b) better performance is achieved in combination with increased mental effort; (c) self-explanations do not increase time on task; and (d) quality of self-explanations can be improved with time. Results based on the analyses of learners' attitudes further support that learners in the experimental groups understood the main idea behind the suggested techniques and positively reacted to them. The study also raised concern about application of efficiency formula for instructional conditions that increase both performance and mental effort in CLT. As a result, an alternative model was suggested to explain the relationship between performance and mental effort based on Yerkes-Dodson law (1908).


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