This chapter addresses the role that working memory capacity (WMC) plays in learning in multimedia environments. WMC represents the ability to control attention, that is, to be able to remain focused on the task at hand while simultaneously retrieving relevant information from long-term memory, all in the presence of distraction. The chapter focuses on how individual differences in attentional control affect cognitive performance, in general, and cognitive performance in multimedia environments, in particular. A review of the relevant literature demonstrates that, in general, students with high WMC outperform students with low WMC on measures of cognitive performance. However, there has been very little research addressing the role of WMC in learning in multimedia environments. To address this need, the authors conducted a study that examined the effects of WMC on learning in a multimedia environment. Results of this study indicated students with high WMC recalled and transferred significantly more information than students with low WMC. Ultimately, this chapter provides evidence that individual differences in working memory capacity should be taken into account when creating and implementing multimedia instructional environments.
The successful completion of complex cognitive tasks requires that individuals are able to dynamically retrieve, maintain, manipulate, and update information in memory during task performance (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). This dynamic memory model was investigated by Daneman and Carpenter (1980) who established a positive correlation between complex cognitive task completion and a measure of working memory capacity (WMC); specifically, through the positive correlation of global and local measures of reading comprehension with a working-memory span task involving both the storage and processing of information. Daneman and Carpenter’s working-memory span task (i.e., reading span) required participants to read a series of sentences (processing), while maintaining a list of the last word from each sentence in memory (storage). This storage + processing working-memory span task differed from previous storage-only working-memory span tasks (e.g., digit span, word span) in that a secondary processing task, reading, provided additional working-memory load complexity. It is believed that this storage + processing working-memory span task provides a more complex memory task, and a better estimate of the cognition necessary to complete complex cognitive tasks, than the simpler storage-only span tasks (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980; Unsworth & Engle, 2007).