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Directing the learner's attention

Attention is the psychological mechanism learners use to select from the environment the elements they'll put into working memory. People aren't very good at paying attention to more than one thing at a time. Imagine listening to two different speeches playing at equal volume in your right and left ears. Your chances of following, much less remembering, both messages would be slim indeed. At best, you might be able to focus your attention on one of the messages, simply ignoring the other.

With its blending of animation, sound, color, and text; multimedia can easily exceed a learner's ability to attend to the information being presented. The "developer stack" screen used in Grabinger's experiment overtaxes attention by presenting several different instructional messages on the same screen. Likewise, multimedia instruction that blends simultaneous text, video, and sounds, all trying to convey disparate messages, will simply divide—even overwhelm—the learner's attention.

The second method for creating effective multimedia instructional design will help you avoid this pitfall:

To avoid dividing the learner's attention, use various media elements such as text, graphics, and sound to present reinforcing rather than disparate messages.

You can actually help focus the learner's attention through a technique called instructional cueing—directing attention to the information that's most important or immediately relevant. The following example uses the magnifying glass as a cueing device, directing attention to the critical sections of a busy application screen.

Multimedia offers a variety of dynamic devices that can serve your purposes in implementing the third method for creating effective instructional materials:

Use color, arrows, shading, and sound—sparingly—to direct the learner's attention to important parts of the message.

Remember, simplicity and focus are of primary importance—hence, the word "sparingly" above. Don't let the power of multimedia tempt you into creating overly elaborate cueing devices, or overusing them, or they may steal focus from the very thing they're meant to highlight.

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