Publication Details

Pouw, W., Rop, G., de Koning, B. & Paas, F. (2019). The Cognitive Basis for the Split-Attention Effect. Journal Of Experimental Psychology-general, 148 (11), 2058-2075.


The split-attention effect entails that learning from spatially separated, but mutually referring information sources (e.g., text and picture), is less effective than learning from the equivalent spatially integrated sources. According to cognitive load theory, impaired learning is caused by the working memory load imposed by the need to distribute attention between the information sources and mentally integrate them. In this study, we directly tested whether the split-attention effect is caused by spatial separation per se. Spatial distance was varied in basic cognitive tasks involving pictures (Experiment 1) and text-picture combinations (Experiment 2; preregistered study), and in more ecologically valid learning materials (Experiment 3). Experiment 1 showed that having to integrate two pictorial stimuli at greater distances diminished performance on a secondary visual working memory task, but did not lead to slower integration. When participants had to integrate a picture and written text in Experiment 2, a greater distance led to slower integration of the stimuli, but not to diminished performance on the secondary task. Experiment 3 showed that presenting spatially separated (compared with integrated) textual and pictorial information yielded fewer integrative eye movements, but this was not further exacerbated when increasing spatial distance even further. This effect on learning processes did not lead to differences in learning outcomes between conditions. In conclusion, we provide evidence that larger distances between spatially separated information sources influence learning processes, but that spatial separation on its own is not likely to be the only, nor a sufficient, condition for impacting learning outcomes.



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