Getting Smart about Split Attention

Getting Smart about Split Attention

Rae Lynne Mancilla (Duquesne University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2821-2.ch012
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This chapter examines second language (L2) listening and note-taking tasks performed by international students in university settings, guided by Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and the split attention effect. It provides a background of the cognitive aspects of L2 listening processes, academic lecture listening, and note-taking, as they interface with temporal, physical, and affective forms of split attention to compromise information decoding and learning outcomes for L2 learners. While this work does not present new findings in the field, it reviews existing studies that provide insight into the Echo SmartpenTM by Livescribe as a mobile e-learning tool for alleviating the split attention effect, and enhancing the encoding and external storage functions of note-taking for L2 learners.
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American academia is rapidly changing as universities across the country experience unprecedented growth in international student populations. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs reports 723,277 international students at colleges and universities, an increase of 32 percent, and an all-time record high (2011). Despite these changing demographics and the diverse student body of second language 1 (L2) learners in American classrooms, instructional methods of the university professorship have remained static, with lecture learning as the primary teaching-learning activity (Castelló & Monereo, 2005; Morell, 2004).

The heavy reliance upon listening skills for the transmission of academic content in universities is problematic for L2 students for whom academic listening is a serious weakness (Knoerr & Weinberg, 2009). Despite matriculation at the university level, research suggests that high proficiency scores on the Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL) do not guarantee students’ ability to perform on listening tasks in authentic academic lecture situations (Ramsay, Barker, & Jones, 1999). In fact, L2 learners remain at a distinct information-processing disadvantage as compared to their native-speaking counterparts, for whom academic lectures are designed and directed (Dunkel & Davis, 1994). This cognitive, information-processing deficit can be attributed to working memory limits that are naturally shorter for L2 learners than L1 learners (Peverly, Ramaswamy, Brown, Sumowski, Alidoost, & Garner, 2007).

The central role of working memory in mediating learning is reflected in the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), a framework that conceptualizes learning as a balancing act of working memory resources broken down into extraneous and intrinsic cognitive loads (Baddeley, 2007). Consideration of cognitive load is integral for university instructors, as the natural cognitive load experienced by L2 learners exceeds that of their L1 counterparts (Sweller, Ayres, & Kalyuga, 2011).

While note-taking is a universal and valued strategy among university students for retaining lecture material during transactional listening, it places significant cognitive demands on working memory resources for L2 learners when note-taking in their second language (Dunkel, 1988; Piolat, Barbier, & Roussey, 2008). Because research suggests that note-taking is valuable when both encoding and external storage functions are realized interdependently, challenges in linguistic decoding affect not only the encoding function of note-taking, but also the external storage function of the notes (Grabe, 2005; Liu, 2001).

Complications from the interaction of two inherently cognitively demanding processes—L2 listening and note-taking—can be best understood through one principle of CLT, the split attention effect, which is multidimensional, dividing learners’ attention across physical, temporal, and affective domains. Since split attention supersedes L2 learners’ ability to naturally manage their cognitive load, they need interventions that can help reduce cognitive load and increase their working memory capacity. One mobile e-learning tool, the Echo SmartpenTM by Livescribe, may act as an external aid to cognition for L2 learners with overburdened working memories to help them to improve the decoding of aural texts and enhance the quality of their notes.

This commentary reviews the research into L2 listening and note-taking in relation to cognitive load and provides an overview of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), including the split attention effect. It then examines key features of the Echo SmartpenTM that make it an ideal tool for ameliorating the split attention effect on three levels—physical, temporal, and affective—by uniquely linking its features with research-based practices for eliminating split attention. The discussion then compares it to current mobile e-learning devices that have been used with L2 learners, summarizes existing research that has been conducted on the Smartpen, and concludes with suggestions for future research in the field.

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