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Psychology of learning with digital media

Research at the chair

Motivation and emotion have become the most examined mediating variables in research on learning with media during the last years. There is no more doubt on the fact that these variables interfere with cognitive processes during learning. The question whether specific design elements which are designed to impact both variables, might increase retention and transfer scores, will be examined within this research project. For this, exemplary elements within the fields of Emotional Design, anthropomorphism, and choice are used to examine these effects.

Emotional design, for example, is defined as the aim to design elements which facilitate learning by inducing specific emotions. In this field, text fragments and pictures as well as videos, animations or other instructional design elements which might emotions (e.g., arousal induction via heart beats or valence differentiation via colors) are the focal point of research.

Emotional Design

Anthropomorphism is defined as the tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human objects. In this vein, computers might rather be seen as social interaction partners when triggers of anthropomorphism are included. In conclusion, people attribute specific properties to these digital objects, which normally are only attributed to humans (e.g., friendliness). In the field of learning with media, these effects are not sufficiently examined.


People, who feel themselves more autonomous, will achieve higher learning scores in instructional environments. This autonomy can be raised by simply providing options of choice. In this research project, the effects of choice options on motivational and cognitive processes in learning will be examined.

For more information concerning principles mentioned above or other related themes, please ask our scientific staff member Sascha Schneider.

This dissertation project is characterized by linking instructional theory with methods from cognitive science. From an instructional perspective, it focusses on the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) developed by John Sweller, separating the overall construct of cognitive load into the facets of intrinsic, extraneous and germane cognitive load. Whereas intrinsic cognitive load (ICL) results from the complexity of the used learning material and learners' previous knowledge, extraneous cognitive load (ECL) is associated with the instruction itself. Germane cognitive load (GCL) arises from relevant processes of schema acquisition and automation. Although these facets are described theoretically, empirical assessment and separation is rather difficult. Such provides space for criticism, in particular regarding additive relationships between the outlined facets and substantial redundancy in the facet of GCL, which has been introduced mainly on theoretical accounts instead of empirical evidence. Reactions on the outlined issues can be roughly classified into two contrary approaches, both targeting a reformulation of the initially postulated theoretical framework. One approach suggests a reduction of cognitive load facets to a two-component-model that contrasts factors beneficial for learning (productive factors) with factors impairing learning (unproductive factors) and entirely subsumes GCL under the facet of ICL. On the contrary, the other approach postulates a process driven reconceptualization of the three-component-model that quantifies temporal changes in GCL over the task. In addition, relations with theories from human-computer interaction and ergonomics on conceptual and measurement level are proposed.

Based on the latter perspective, cognitive processes behind the outlined facets of cognitive load should be localized by using the cognitive architecture ACT-R, developed by John R. Anderson. Such intention receives input from evidence on functional brain activity obtained in fMRI studies, which results in a conceptual approach linking defined brain areas with postulated aspects of cognitive load. A core strength of this methodology consists in the possibility to precisely formalize basic human cognition, which fosters the development of vested explanations for certain human. In general, ACT-R is distinguished by its modular, neurophysiological based structure, the representation of declarative knowledge in chunks and the interaction of the defined modules via production rules. Due to the computational implementation (see figure), it is possible to directly transfer the postulated model assumptions into formal code. This allows to derive predictions on human performance within a given task setting.

ACT-R “in action“: Visicon, Experimental Window, Buffer Viewer, Listener & Control Panel during the “Subitizing Task”
For more information concerning principles mentioned above or other related themes, please ask our scientific staff member Maria Wirzberger.

"Serious Games" or Educational Videogames are part of the research field at the department of E-Learning and New Media. Empirical studies are performed and closely linked to lectures and doctorates. In these studies software like "Minecraft" or the "Unreal Engine" is used in order to achieve results about educational psychology and instructional game design which are close to reality.
  Screenshots Educational Videogames  

Following this approach, the teaching and learning project "Atlantis", several jump-and-runs and a quiz were developed and investigated. Studies embedded in this and other learning environments will focus on collaborative/competitive learning, affective effects, goal setting/orientation or seductive details using a foundation within the fields of cognitive and motivational psychology.
  Screenshots MinecraftEDU Atlantis  

For questions concerning these projects and further interest in educational videogame research, feel free to contact our assistant researcher Steve Nebel.

How do interactivity, movements, & gestures affect multimedia learning? Novel input devices and virtual reality environments enable complex interactions with realistic visualizations, but how can these learning environments be designed in a learner-friendly manner? In this PhD project, aspects of interaction design based on theories of embodied cognition are investigated. In particular, experiments regarding the role of haptic information, the design of three-dimensional learning environments and the effects of activity on cognitive load are conducted.
In the field of cognitive psychology, theories highlighting the connection between perception and memory are experiencing growing popularity. These theoretical accounts describe the activation of neuronal states during action and perception and their re-activation during cognitive processes. The aim of this PhD project is the evaluation of findings from the field of cognitive science in the context of multimedia learning in order to extend current approaches within instructional psychology. An example is the development of “embodied cognitive load theory” as an extension of “cognitive load theory.”

For more information concerning embodied cognition and related topics, please feel free to contact our research assistant Alexander Skulmowski
Mathematics is one of the most difficult and important subjects at universities, and technical subjects mostly include some form of higher mathematics. The demand for qualified STEM-specialists is steadily increasing. Therefore, technical universities have to improve the teaching in the field of mathematics.

In order to decrease the high failure rates and huge number of drop-outs from the university caused by mathematics, the semester-accompanying online courses in OPAL were prepared. The courses were developed in cooperation with the department of Applied Functional Analysis (Faculty of Mathematics, Chemnitz University of Technology). With the help of a huge pool of exercises and instructions, students should be enabled to learn self-regulated in any time and place.

OPAL learning platform

In order to achieve this goal, instruction-psychological and subject-didactic-related aspects of the design of computer-based learning environments are investigated. Furthermore, motivational and emotional processes play an important role during the learning process. Finally, the results of experiments should be implemented in further online-courses.

The main questions of the working group are:
  • How do emotional decorative pictures influence the learning?
  • How do polite or direct instruction and feedback affect learning ability and motivation?
  • Does an illusion of task adaptation lead to increased learning performance as a real adaptation (Vandewaetere & Clarebout, 2010)?
For more information about the digitization of the teaching in the field of mathematics, please contact our scientific staff member Maria Mikheeva.

Parasocial Interaction is defined as conversational give and take between a media figure and the recipient. Reporter, sportsmen, actors and videogame NPCs (summarized as social entities) play an important role in nearly every media offer and today´s media would be unthinkable without them. Therefore, it is important to investigate parasocial processes in the context of didactics and general learning processes. Why do people interact with social entities and how can these interaction processes can be influences in order to create an optimal learning environment?

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The current research focuses on learning relevant parasocial processes. Benefits of social entities which are implemented in dynamic learning environments on affective processes, motivation, cognitive load and learning outcomes are investigated. How social entities should be designed and presented in order to strengthen the parasocial interaction and foster learning? For example the look, presentation and perceived sympathy of video lecturers, pedagogical agents or computer game characters can be manipulated to influence the learning environment.

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For more information concerning principles mentioned above or other related themes, please ask our scientific staff member Maik Beege.

Computer-based learning environments in terms of multimedia and digital learning materials are used more and more frequently in contexts of classes in school, further education and other forms of training. So, new media replaces and complements traditional lesson methods. In this area of teaching lots of theories of cognitive psychology describe possibilities which result from the field of new media. These findings result in limitations designing instructions of learning contents. One of the central theories in this field of research is known as CTML (Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning) from Richard E. Mayer. Several designing principles can be derived from this theory. Although statistical evidence for each of these principles exist, a few need to be concretized with restrictive or framework-given circumstances or even moderating variables concerning instructional use. For this, the "Seductive detail Effect", the "Personalization Principle" and the "Politeness Effect" are examined exemplarily considering cognitive, motivational and emotional variables in terms of this Ph.D. and other research projects.

The "Seductive Detail Effect" is related to the concept of seductive details, which are placed in learning environments to achieve higher attention of learners. These details are defined by interesting but irrelevant contents for learning and appear as pictures and texts (commonly used in traditional text books) just like audio comments, sounds, background music or even video clips. In this area of research, borders and potentialities are considered equivalently.

Recent studies associated with the "Personalization Principle" show how informal verbalizations, direct comments, dialogs and other social cues foster learning in the context of multimedia. In the context of personalization, politeness and its effects on recipients of learning texts underpin higher learning outcomes referring to transfer scores. Polite formulations occur predominantly in instructions and forms of feedback. Both principles pick up explanatory approaches based on social, motivational and even emotional variables. Those theoretical derivations will be examined in this research project and future student theses. This extends the key research area of "human factors in technologies" by explaining how learning processes can be designed properly in all aspects of society.

For more information concerning principles mentioned above or other related themes, please ask our scientific staff member Sascha Schneider.