The cognitive impact of interactive design features for learning complex materials in medical education

Hyuksoon S. Song, Martin Pusic, Michael W. Nick, Umut Sarpel, Jan L. Plass, Adina L. Kalet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To identify the most effective way for medical students to interact with a browser-based learning module on the symptoms and neurological underpinnings of stroke syndromes, this study manipulated the way in which subjects interacted with a graphical model of the brain and examined the impact of functional changes on learning outcomes. It was hypothesized that behavioral interactions that were behaviorally more engaging and which required deeper consideration of the model would result in heightened cognitive interaction and better learning than those whose manipulation required less deliberate behavioral and cognitive processing. One hundred forty four students were randomly assigned to four conditions whose model controls incorporated features that required different levels of behavioral and cognitive interaction: Movie (low behavioral/low cognitive, n = 40), Slider (high behavioral/low cognitive, n = 36), Click (low behavioral/high cognitive, n = 30), and Drag (high behavioral/high cognitive, n = 38). Analysis of Covariates (ANCOVA) showed that students who received the treatments associated with lower cognitive interactivity (Movie and Slider) performed better on a transfer task than those receiving the module associated with high cognitive interactivity (Click and Drag, partial eta squared =.03). In addition, the students in the high cognitive interactivity conditions spent significantly more time on the stroke locator activity than other conditions (partial eta squared =.36). The results suggest that interaction with controls that were tightly coupled with the model and whose manipulation required deliberate consideration of the model's features may have overtaxed subjects' cognitive resources. Cognitive effort that facilitated manipulation of content, though directed at the model, may have resulted in extraneous cognitive load, impeding subjects in recognizing the deeper, global relationships in the materials. Instructional designers must, therefore, keep in mind that the way in which functional affordances are integrated with the content can shape both behavioral and cognitive processing, and has significant cognitive load implications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)198-205
Number of pages8
JournalComputers and Education
StatePublished - 2014


  • Behavioral interactivity
  • Cognitive interactivity
  • Cognitive load
  • Medical education
  • Multimedia learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Computer Science
  • Education


Dive into the research topics of 'The cognitive impact of interactive design features for learning complex materials in medical education'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this