The complexities of learning in multisensory environments

As a P8dks1l1hD student working on the effect of noise on learning, I am fascinated by the complex environment in which children are growing up. They are constantly exposed to multiple auditory and visual information (face to face conversations, TV, radio, books, background noise from the street…). I’m always wondering to what extent, and in which contexts, audio-visual information is beneficial for children, and in which contexts it can be detrimental.

In this blog, I’m going to summarize two talks that gave me some thoughts on these questions.

Anna Fisher (Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University) presented her work on the multiple “attention-catchers” in the classroom, and in particular, visual stimulation. Classroom walls are often very crowded and colourful: children’s work can be proudly displayed, along with posters to help remember letters and numbers, or the weather forecast which children enthusiastically update every day. By reproducing this visual environment in the lab, Anna Fisher showed that these can distract children from their lessons. In other words, it can be easier for children to focus on the teacher and relevant instructional materials if the classroom has a minimalistic design, with few decorations. In her study, this enhanced focus was associated with learning gains. Anna’s current work is also looking at the instructional materials themselves, questioning the relevance of illustrations in reading books: while multiple and colourful illustrations aim to be engaging, do they always help an understanding of the text? She suggests that their relevance should be critically questioned, to identify which illustrations provide support for comprehension, and which act as distractors, driving pupils’ attention away from the key points.

The main point here is to keep the overarching learning goal in mind. In that respect, Paul Matusz (Lecturer at the Institute for Information Systems at HES-SO Valais and Lausanne University, Switzerland) pointed out that being sensitive to multisensory information in the classroom can be a double-edged sword. Looking at posters on the wall while performing a learning task can promote learning, if these posters contain information that is relevant for the task at hand (e.g. multiplication tables). But if the information is not relevant (e.g. a poem that reminds a child of her holidays), it can potentially drive children away from their task. In other words, qualifying which information acts as “distractor” and which as a “learning help” depends very much on the task at hand. Children who are particularly sensitive to external information can be either especially advantaged or especially disadvantaged, depending on the relevance of such information. You can read Paul’s blog post, as well as his article written for children, to find out more about his work.

I particularly appreciated Anna Fisher’s and Paul Matusz’s work because they show us that complex psychological topics cannot be seen in “black and white”. Instead they encourage us to always consider the specificity of the learning context, and of each pupil. It also stimulates methodological innovations, revealing the potential for mixed-methods, in-between classic well-controlled laboratory research, and naturalistic investigations in the classroom.

You can find out more about Jess’ research from her interview with the Learning Scientists.  She works in the lab of Natasha Kirkham, whose research you can read about on this website here. You can also find out more about related research from other lab members on attention switching and multitasking.
Follow Jess on twitter @Jess_Masso and see her website here

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