Cognitive Processes & Education

Designing instruction in ways that best fit the known strengths and limitations of the human mind is the key issue addressed by our group of leading education scholars. This research falls primarily under the aegis of cognitive load theory, an internationally leading instructional theory originating from UNSW. Our researchers in this area are also concerned with the critical role of educational technology.

At the forefront of this field since the 1980’s UNSW researchers have developed one of the few frameworks for instructional theory recognised globally. This work is based on an understanding of human cognitive architecture and the instructional consequences that flow from it. A key aspect of the theory is the relation between long-term memory and working memory, and how instructional materials interact with this cognitive system.

This research has been best applied to technically challenging or cognitively complex material. This has led our scholars to be particularly interested in investigating issues in science and maths education, and in language learning, but in more recent times the research has been more wide-spread to include all areas of learning. Their focus also includes the development of new pathways to enhancing assessment and technology-enhanced environments, including the rapidly growing fields of multimedia, online and mobile learning.

The Impact of our Work

The work of our researchers has influenced the field of learning and instruction in Australia and overseas. This impact extends to academia, where the volume of citations speaks to the influence of their work, and to educator professionals working in the sector. The large range of instructional effects generated by their research continues to be used by teachers and instructors in a diverse range of settings.

Amongst the many publications from this group are pieces of work with particular impact on the field. For example, the article by Kirshner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) “Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching” Educational Psychologist, 41, has become the most cited article this journal has ever published. The article “Expertise reversal effect” by Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, and Sweller, published in 2003 by the same journal is also listed among the most cited papers. This paper was also ranked as the world 4th paper in instructional design field for the years 1980-2008 and the 2nd by the mean number of annual citations (Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25) The article by Ayres (2006) “Using subjective measures to detect variations of intrinsic cognitive load within problems”, Learning and Instruction, 16, had the journal’s highest number of citations for an experimental paper over the five year period. The 2011 book “Cognitive Load Theory” by Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga has been reported in the top 25% highest selling Springer books in 2012 and 2013. Two of our current researchers, John Sweller and Slava Kalyuga, were ranked among the world 10th most productive educational psychologists for the years 2003-2008 by the number of overall publications and the number of single- and first-authored publications correspondingly (Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35).

Evidence of Excellence

This research group has had considerable grant success, securing funding from the ARC, industry and the Australian Schools Innovation in Science, Technology & Mathematics initiative of the Australian Government. They have also been recognised for their work through the Australian Government’s ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’ report, which ranked UNSW ‘above world standard’ and a national leader in this field.

Our staff publish in the leading journals across the US and Europe, as well as producing numerous books and book chapters. Their profile and leadership in the field is marked by UNSW having the third highest number of citations in instructional design globally, our researchers listed amongst the top ten most productive in this field, and our position as the only Australian university to rank in the top twenty institutions for publications in the five leading educational psychology journals.

Highly regarded amongst their peers the group collaborate with a number of Australian universities, and publish with international researchers from France, Germany, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Switzerland, and the United States. Members of the group also serve in prestigious editorial and board positions for major journals and international conferences.