The effects of problem-based learning scaffolds on cognitive load, problem-solving, and student performance within a multimedia-enhanced learning environment
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Learners who are novice problem solvers often encounter difficulty when solving complex problems. One explanation for this difficulty is that the cognitive requirements of problem-solving are sufficiently high that learners easily become overwhelmed and frustrated, leading to a state known as cognitive overload in which learning is obstructed. Cognitive Load Theory is concerned with the design of instructional approaches intended to manage the cognitive load required for thinking and problem-solving tasks. Scaffolds are any kind of support that facilitates the accomplishment of a difficult task that a learner would not be able to accomplish on their own. They are potential mechanisms to support students in negotiating the potentially high cognitive load required by complex problem-solving. The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of technology-based scaffolds within a problem-based learning environment known as Alien Rescue. The study investigated the impact of scaffolds on cognitive load, problem-solving behaviors, science knowledge, and student perceptions of the learning environment. Participants for this study included sixth grade students from a suburban middle school in the southwestern United States. Student classes were assigned to one of three treatment conditions: (a) a problem constraint condition in which students were guided through a problem-solving process similar to that of an expert, (b) a prompt condition in which students were provided with guiding messages during problem-solving, and (c) a control condition with no scaffolding. All conditions participated in the use of Alien Rescue for three weeks. Measures including a self-report measure of mental effort, calculated instructional efficiency scores, problem solution scores, student activity logs, and science knowledge test performance were used to evaluate students' cognitive load, problem-solving performance, problem-solving strategies, and learning gains. An open-ended questionnaire and student interviews were used to gather data on students' perceptions of the program. Results of the study indicate statistically significant differences between treatment conditions with respect to problem-solving efficiency, student problem-solving behaviors, and scientific knowledge gain. Additionally, qualitative findings highlight problematic aspects of the highly structured condition as implemented within the classroom context while also identifying components of the learning environment that were perceived as helpful and useful to participants. Teacher interviews also provided insight into classroom implementation of the program and opportunities to further enhance scaffolds to support student learning. Implications of the study from research, instructional design, and technology perspectives are discussed along with a treatment of study limitations and opportunities for further research in this area.