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Computers in Human Behavior


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The impact of goal specicity and goal type on learning outcome and cognitive load
Joachim Wirth a,*, Josef Knsting b, Detlev Leutner c
a
Ruhr-University Bochum, Department of Research on Learning and Instruction, 44780 Bochum, Germany
b
University of Kassel, Mnchebergstrae 21a, 34109 Kassel, Germany
c
Duisburg-Essen University, Department of Instructional Psychology, 45117 Essen, Germany

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Keywords: Two hundred and thirty three 15-year old students conducted experiments within a computer-based
Cognitive load learning environment. They were provided with different goals according to an experimental 2  2
Discovery learning design with goal specicity (nonspecic goals versus specic goals) and goal type (problem solving goals
Goal specicity versus learning goals) as factors. We replicated the ndings of other researchers that nonspecic problem
Computer-based learning environment
solving goals lead to lower cognitive load and better learning than specic problem solving goals. For
learning goals, however, we observed this goal specicity effect only on cognitive load but not on learning
outcome. Results indicate that the goal specicity affects the element interactivity of a task and cognitive
load with both, problem solving goals or learning goals. But differences in overall cognitive load are not
sufcient for explaining differences in learning outcome. Additionally, differences in strategy use come
into play. Specic problem solving goals seem to restrict students to use a problem solving strategy
whereas nonspecic problem solving goals or learning goals allow students to use a learning strategy.
We conclude that in order to foster learning, students must be provided with goals that allow them to
use a learning strategy. Additionally, providing them with nonspecic goals decreases cognitive load
and, thus, enables students to learn with less effort.
2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction of nonspecic problem solving goals as well as goal-free problems


over specic problem solving goals is that they allow problem solv-
Solving problems without a specically dened goal leads to ers for more or less consciously pursuing a learning goal (e.g., rule
higher learning outcomes (schema acquisition) than solving prob- induction or schema acquisition; Sweller, 1983; Sweller et al.,
lems with a specically dened goal, usually stated as a specic 1982), whereas specic problem solving goals restrict problem
problem state that has to be reached. A high goal specicity leads solvers to pursue the specic problem solving goal only, that is
to low schema acquisition or rule induction. This phenomenon is without pursuing any learning goals. This assumption implies that
called the goal specicity effect and has been observed with problem solving goals differ substantially from learning goals. And
various kinds of problems such as maze problems (Paas, Camp, & indeed, these two types of goals can be distinguished, for example,
Rikers, 2001; Sweller & Levine, 1982), trigonometry problems according to whether they dene an internal or an external goal
(Owen & Sweller, 1985), geometry problem (Bobis, Sweller, & state (Klauer, 1988). Problem solving goals are more or less well-
Cooper, 1994), arithmetic problems (Sweller, Mawer, & Howe, dened states of a problem solvers external environment, and solv-
1982), kinematic problems (Sweller, Mawer, & Ward, 1983), or ing the problem requires transforming some specic aspects of a
even complex and dynamic problems (Burns & Vollmeyer, 2002; problem solvers external environment in order to reach the exter-
Miller, Lehman, & Kdinger, 1999). In studies investigating the goal nal environmental goal state (cf., Klauer, 1988; Schwonke et al.,
specicity effect there is usually a condition with one or more this issue; Sweller & Levine, 1982). For example, when solving a
specic problem solving goals (well-dened; cf., Drner & Wear- maze problem with a specically described exit of the maze envi-
ing, 1995) that is compared with a condition with nonspecic ronment (a specic problem solving goal), the problem is to be
problem solving goals (ill-dened), or even with a condition with solved by carrying an object (e.g., a grey square on a computer
no problem solving goal at all (goal-free). screen, Paas et al., 2001, or a problem solvers index nger, Sweller
Summarizing the results of this kind of research on the goal & Levine, 1982) from its initial position to the exit position. The
specicity effect can lead to the assumption that the advantage problem solving goal is achieved with success as soon as the object
is in the exit position of the maze environment independent of
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +49 (0)234 32 28728; fax: +49 (0)234 32 14491. what a problem solver has learned about the structure of the maze
E-mail address: joachim.wirth@rub.de (J. Wirth). environment. In contrast to problem solving goals, learning goals

0747-5632/$ - see front matter 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.12.004

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are more or less well-dened internal mental states of a learners But since learning goals should always trigger the use of learning
knowledge, and learning requires modifying a learners knowledge strategies independently from the specicity of the learning goal
structure in long-term memory in order to reach the internal men- the strategy explanation approach suggests that there will be
tal goal state. With respect to the maze problem example, this no goal specicity effect observable when participants are pro-
means that learners try to learn (by doing) how to move an object vided with a learning goal rather than a problem solving goal.
out of the maze environment (schema acquisition and/or rule
induction). The learning goal is achieved with success as soon as 1.2. The cognitive load approach
a learner has acquired sufcient knowledge about the structure
of the maze so that, on later occasions, the learner can move an ob- This approach explains the goal specicity effect by a different
ject to the exit by using the acquired maze schema indepen- amount of (overall) cognitive load imposed by a specic versus a
dently from the specic positions a learner has moved the object nonspecic problem solving goal (Sweller,1988, 1994). When solv-
during the learning process. ing a problem with a specic goal by means-ends analysis, problem
Low specicity of a problem solving goal seems to allow chang- solvers must simultaneously keep in mind the current state, the
ing the problem solving goal into a goal of different quality, that is, goal state, the relation between these two states, the relations be-
into a learning goal. But what if a person is not provided with a tween problem solving operators, and, in the case of sub-goaling,
problem solving goal but, instead, with a learning goal? In that the stack of sub-goals. Every element, that has to be considered
case, the question comes up whether goal specicity also affects simultaneously for solving the problem, increases the element
learning or whether the goal specicity effect is restricted to prob- interactivity of that problem, and therefore increases cognitive
lem solving goals. Since the goal specicity effect is well docu- load. When solving a problem with a nonspecic goal, however,
mented for problem solving goals there is, to our knowledge, no there is no pre-dened criterion to be reached in order to perform
empirical study yet where the specicity of learning goals is varied the task successfully. Therefore, there is no need to consider the
and the effect on learning and/or problem solving is observed. relation between a current state and a goal state, and there is no
In the literature, there exist two main approaches to explaining stack of sub-goals to be considered simultaneously. As a conse-
the goal specicity effect of problem solving goals, that we will call quence, element interactivity and cognitive load are lower for
the strategy approach and the cognitive load approach. In the problems with nonspecic goals compared to problems with spe-
following, we will describe these two approaches, and we will dis- cic goals.
cuss if and how these approaches can be generalized to learning Thus, the difference in element interactivity and resulting cog-
goals. Afterwards, we will report on the present study investigating nitive load can explain the goal specicity effect for problem solv-
the goal specicity effect on learning and cognitive load for both ing goals. Furthermore, this approach can also be generalized to
problem solving goals and learning goals. learning goals: when pursuing a specic learning goal, learners
must also consider a current mental state, a mental goal state,
1.1. The strategy approach the relation between these two states, the relation between differ-
ent learning approaches, and, in the case of sub-goaling, the stack
This approach explains the goal specicity effect by different of sub-goals (Winne & Hadwin, 1998). In contrast, when pursuing a
strategies problem solvers use when provided with a specic ver- nonspecic learning goal, the number of elements that must be
sus a nonspecic problem solving goal and without any explicit considered simultaneously is smaller. Learners may work on the
additional instruction to learn (e.g., Sweller, 1988; Sweller & learning task without being controlled by a specic learning goal
Levine, 1982; Sweller et al., 1982). It is assumed that the major and simply explore what moves are possible within a current envi-
mechanism problem solvers employ when provided with a specic ronmental problem state (Sweller, 1988). There is no need to con-
goal is means-ends analysis (Newell & Simon, 1972). That is, having sider the relation between a current mental state and a pre-dened
a specic goal in mind problem solvers analyze the current prob- mental goal state, because learners must only ensure that they
lem state concerning ways of how to transform the current state learn something, but not that they learn exactly what they are sup-
into the specic goal state or at least into a state with a smaller posed to learn. That is, monitoring includes only the evaluation
distance to the goal state. Previous moves that led to the current whether the current mental state has changed somehow by the
problem state are not relevant for this kind of analysis. Therefore, learning activities. But learners do not need to evaluate whether
problem solvers using means-ends analysis are unlikely to induce the current mental state has been modied in a pre-dened way.
rules or to identify the structure of the problem, e.g., by inferring Therefore, the cognitive load approach suggests that the goal spec-
from previous moves to possible moves for the current state. Of icity effect is also observable when participants are provided with
course, the use of means-ends analysis does not exclude the learning goals, because specic learning goals should lead to higher
possibility of learning. But learning is not necessary if at all, cognitive load than nonspecic learning goals.
learning would be incidental. Thus, means-ends analysis has to Summarizing the two explanation approaches it can be as-
be considered as a pure problem solving strategy. sumed that there are two mechanisms affecting learning outcome
In contrast, when provided with a nonspecic goal, or even un- and cognitive load when solving problems with a specic versus a
der a no-goal condition, problem solvers cannot use means-ends nonspecic problem solving goal (1) Problem solvers use a prob-
analysis, because there is no specied end. Instead, problem solv- lem solving strategy rather than a learning strategy when pursuing
ers can use a history-cued strategy (Sweller et al., 1982) where a specic problem solving goal. Additionally, they are confronted
they induce the structure of the problem from previously (2) with a high element interactivity of that task resulting in high
performed moves and use this structure to generate and test cognitive load. Thus, it is likely to observe a strong goal specicity
hypotheses about possible moves for the current state. This effect for specic versus nonspecic problem solving goals. In con-
history-cued strategy necessarily includes learning and therefore trast, the two explanation approaches suggest only one mechanism
could also be seen as a learning strategy. affecting learning outcome and cognitive load when learners are
Thus, according to this strategy approach, specic problem solv- provided with a specic versus a nonspecic learning goal, that
ing goals trigger the use of a pure problem solving strategy is, high cognitive load in the case of a specic learning goal and
whereas nonspecic problem solving goals trigger a learning strat- low cognitive load in the case of a nonspecic learning goal,
egy (see also Burns & Vollmeyer, 2002). This difference in strategy respectively. Thus, we assume the goal specicity effect for specic
use can explain the goal specicity effect for problem solving goals. versus nonspecic learning goals to be smaller than for problem

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solving goals. Furthermore, it can be assumed that learning goals the two experimental factors. Students worked with a com-
should result in higher learning outcome than problem solving puter-based learning environment (CBLE) where they could con-
goals since both specic and nonspecic learning goals are likely duct experiments within the physical domain buoyancy in liquids
to trigger the use of a learning strategy. In contrast, specic prob- (Fig. 1). Referring to Klahr and Dunbar (1988) and van Joolingen
lem solving goals are likely to trigger the use of a problem solving and de Jong (1997) the learning environment provided the stu-
strategy and nonspecic problem solving goals only allow for (but dents with an experimental space the science lab on the
do not explicitly trigger) the use of a learning strategy. left side of the screen and with a hypotheses space a specic
In order to test the expected difference of the goal specicity ef- kind of scratch pad on the right side of the screen (cf., van Gog,
fect for problem solving goals and learning goals we conducted an Kester, Nievelstein, Giesbers, & Paas, this issue). The computer-
experimental study with a 2  2 between-subjects design with two simulated science lab allowed students, in order to conduct an
levels of goal specicity (nonspecic goals versus specic goals) and experiment, to put different cubes into liquids of different den-
two levels of goal type (problem solving goals versus learning sity by drag-and-drop, and to observe the forces affecting the
goals). Performance in a knowledge test (used as pre-test and as cubes (represented by arrows) as well as the cubes behavior
post-test) and overall cognitive load were measured as dependent (sinking, oating, and ascending). The scratch pad allowed stu-
variables. We expected to nd a statistically signicant interaction dents to make notes in terms of constructing a specic kind of
of goal specicity and goal type on both learning outcome and cog- a concept-map. Students were sufciently trained to use this
nitive load indicating a stronger effect of goal specicity for prob- kind of map before working with the CBLE. Nevertheless, it
lem solving goals than for learning goals. turned out in the study that students hardly ever used the
scratch pad although they were trained sufciently. Therefore,
2. Method we will not present any data concerning the scratch pad in the
current paper.
2.1. Participants The physics domain buoyancy in liquids that students had to ex-
plore by conducting experiments consists of 14 relevant relations
Two hundred and thirty three students of a higher track second- between variables (e.g., The greater the volume of a cube the
ary school participated in the study (52% boys and 48% girls; mean greater its buoyancy force). Students in all experimental groups
age = 14.5 years, SD = .77). Within their classes students were ran- had the chance to explore all of these 14 relevant relations. In
domly assigned to one of four experimental groups with doing so, students were provided with a set of goals. The number
56 6 N 6 61 students per experimental group. There was no statis- of goals within each set varied between groups from three (non-
tically signicant difference between groups concerning gender, specic goals) to 14 (specic goals). The sets of nonspecic goals
v2(3) = 6.640, p = .084. were selected in a way, however, that they addressed all of the
14 relevant relations that were also addressed by each set of spe-
2.2. Design and materials cic goals. While specic goals addressed exactly one relevant rela-
tion nonspecic goals addressed more than one relevant relation.
The study followed a 2  2 experimental between-subjects de- Thus, the number of relevant relations that students had to con-
sign with goal specicity (nonspecic goals versus specic goals) sider in order to pursue their goals was kept constant across all
and goal type (problem solving goals versus learning goals) as experimental groups.

Fig. 1. Screenshot of the computer-based learning environment (CBLE).

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Table 1
Goal examples of the four experimental groups.

Goal specicity
Specic Nonspecic
Goal Problem Throw into a water tank: a cube of that volume that maximizes its buoyancy force Throw consecutively into a water tank: nine cubes
type solving that all sink
Learning Find out how the volume of a cube and its buoyancy force are related to each other, and Find out why some cubes sink in water, and keep it in
keep it in mind mind

The four experimental groups differed in the kind and in the overall cognitive load. Furthermore, the mean was divided by se-
number of goals (but not in the number of relevant relations ad- ven in order to get a scale ranging from zero to one (M = .50;
dressed by each set of goals; see Table 1). The specic problem solv- SD = .21).
ing goals group got 14 problem solving goals, each addressing one In order to take into account individual differences in intelli-
of the 14 relevant relations, whereas the specic learning goals gence we used a standardized intelligence test (scale gural anal-
group got 14 learning goals addressing the same relations as the ogies; Heller, Gaedicke, & Weinlder, 1985; 25 items; M = .75;
corresponding goals of the specic problem solving goals group. SD = .15; Cronbachs a = .71). Note that the scale score was com-
The nonspecic problem solving goals group was provided with three puted as the mean over all items resulting in a range from zero
nonspecic problem solving goals, whereas the nonspecic learning to one.
goals group was provided with three nonspecic learning goals
addressing the same relations as the corresponding goals of non- 2.3. Procedure
specic problem solving goals group.
Students knowledge concerning the relevant relations of the The study was conducted, during regular science lessons, in the
CBLEs content buoyancy in liquids, as the rst dependent variable, computer labs of the participating schools. At the beginning, stu-
was measured by two multiple-choice tests. One was administered dents were provided with an overview over all tests they were sup-
before students worked with the CBLE. The other one was admin- posed to work on, and they were informed that at the end of the
istered afterwards. Example items are How does the density of a session they would receive a knowledge test on buoyancy in liq-
body change if only its volume is increased? The density of the uids. Thus, students of all experimental groups were implicitly gi-
body. . . (. . .increases/. . .decreases/. . .stays the same) or How ven a very general, very nonspecic learning goal. Afterwards, we
does the buoyancy force of a body change if only the density of administered some additional tests that are of no relevance for
the uid is increased? The buoyancy force of the body. . . the present paper. Then we administered a questionnaire on inter-
(. . .increases/. . .decreases/. . .stays the same). Each item was scored est in physics, and we collected some demographical data from the
whether it was answered correct or wrong. As scores we computed participants (10 min). The questionnaires were followed by the
the means over all items resulting in percentage correct scores standardized intelligence test (8 min) and the knowledge test
ranging from zero to one (13 items each; pre-test: M = .63; about buoyancy in liquids (pre-test; 10 min). Afterwards, students
SD = .18; Cronbachs a = .60; post-test: M = .62; SD = .23; Cron- started with a computer-based introduction and a training of the
bachs a = .76). In the means, there is no difference in performances use of the scratch pad for constructing a concept-map (about
between pre-test and post-test; a correlation of r = .43 between 15 min). When they were sufciently able to use the scratch pad,
pre-test and post-test scores, however, indicates that students students were introduced to the CBLE on buoyancy in liquids after
performance has changed differentially from pre-test to post-test. a short break. Directly before starting the learning phase, we as-
That is, some students showed gains whereas other students sessed their actual motivation to work with the CBLE using a short
showed losses from pre-test to post-test. We will return to this version of a questionnaire developed by Rheinberg, Vollmeyer, and
in the results section. Burns (2001). Filling in the questionnaire took about 1 min. Data
The overall cognitive load, as the second dependent variable, about actual motivation are of no relevance for the present paper
was measured by a questionnaire administered immediately after and not reported. Afterwards, students had 20 min time to work
students had nished working with the CBLE and before they got in the CBLE. Time was kept constant for all groups, and no student
the knowledge post-test. The questionnaire consisted of eight was allowed to proceed before 20 min were over. We did so in or-
items to be answered on a seven-point rating scale. We developed der to prevent any time-on-task effects. Depending on the experi-
the items on the basis of conceptions introduced by Braarud mental group students were assigned to, they were provided with
(2001), Hart and Staveland (1988), and Tsang and Velazquez one of four sets of goals within these 20 min. Whenever students
(1996) in order to take into account the specic mental demands had reached a goal, the CBLE provided them with a new goal to
on working memory that result from the specic requirements of pursue. After 20 min, students lled in our cognitive load question-
our CBLE, e.g., processing of textual and visual-spatial information, naire (2 min), and afterwards they answered again the questions of
or working under time pressure. Example items are How much ef- the knowledge test (post-test; 10 min).
fort did you invest to understand the texts of the assignments?
(1 = hardly no effort; . . . 7 = very strong effort), How much effort 3. Results
did you invest to understand the pictures in the science lab?
(1 = hardly no effort; . . . 7 = very strong effort), or How much We expected to nd a goal specicity effect on cognitive load
time pressure did you experience when working on your tasks? and on performance in knowledge tests for both, problem solving
(1 = hardly no time pressure; . . . 7 = very strong time pressure). goals and learning goals. However, we expected the goal specicity
As indicated by a high internal consistency (Cronbachs a = .84) effect to be smaller for learning goals than for problem solving
and by high item-total correlations (.48 < rit < .63), however, we goals. In order to increase the statistical sensitivity of the experi-
were not able to separate different aspects of cognitive load af- mental design for being able to detect even small effects (Lipsey,
fected by different specic demands of our learning CBLE. There- 1990) we decided to reduce the variance of the cognitive load
fore, we used the mean over all eight items as an indicator for and the knowledge test performance variables within experimen-

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Table 2
Correlations and sample sizes (in brackets) of knowledge tests performance (pre-test a Problem solving goals
and post-test), cognitive load, and intelligence.
0.70
Goal specificity
Knowledge pre- Knowledge post- Cognitive load Specific goals

Performance in knowledge tests


test test Nonspecific goals

(adjusted for intelligence)


Knowledge post- .428 (231) 0.65
test
Cognitive load .147 (225) .145 (225)
Intelligence .258 (230) .338 (232) .194 (224)
0.60
All correlations signicant at a = .05 level.

Table 3 0.55
Descriptives for performance on knowledge tests (pre-test and post-test), cognitive
load, and intelligence of the four experimental groups.

Problem solving goals Learning goals 0.50

Specic Nonspecic Specic Nonspecic Pre-test Post-test


Means and standard deviations (in brackets) Time
Knowledge pre-test .626 (.189) .625 (.166) .632 (.174) .641 (.187)
Knowledge post-test
Cognitive load
.555 (.212)
.523 (.206)
.640
.437
(.231)
(.219)
.661
.592
(.225)
(.168)
.657
.443
(.237)
(.194)
b Learning goals

Intelligence .783 (.113) .745 (.154) .731 (.162) .760 (.176) 0.70

Means and standard deviations (in brackets), adjusted for intelligence

Performance in knowledge tests


Knowledge pre-test .617 (.185) .628 (.166) .638 (.165) .639 (.174)

(adjusted for intelligence)


Knowledge post-test .539 (.205) .644 (.227) .672 (.228) .653 (.204) 0.65
Cognitive load .530 (.203) .435 (.214) .586 (.174) .444 (.181)

0.60

tal groups by controlling them, using linear regression, for intelli-


gence, as both variables showed fairly substantial correlations with
intelligence (Table 2). Table 3 shows both the original as well as the 0.55
adjusted means and standard deviations of all variables.
Goal specificity
Specific goals
3.1. Knowledge test performance 0.50 Nonspecific goals

Fig. 2a shows the adjusted means of knowledge test perfor- Pre-test Post-test

mance of the two groups with problem solving goals. Descriptively, Time
our results are as expected: the post-test performance of the group Fig. 2. (a) Means of performance in knowledge tests of groups with problem solving
with specic problem solving goals was lower than the respective goals, adjusted for intelligence. (b) Means of performance in knowledge tests of
performance of the group with nonspecic problem solving goals groups with learning goals, adjusted for intelligence.
(d = 0.486). But as can be seen in Fig. 2a, this difference is due to
a substantial performance reduction from pre-test to post-test in
the specic goals group. The descriptive results are different for whereas the test performance of students provided with problem
students provided with learning goals (Fig. 2b). In that case, the solving goals decreased over time (pre-test: M = .622, SD = .175;
post-test performance of the group with specic learning goals post-test: M = .591, SD = .222; d = 0.157). Additionally the triple
was slightly better than the respective performance of the group interaction of time, goal specicity, and goal type was signicant,
with nonspecic learning goals (d = 0.089). But this effect was F(1,226) = 4.331, MSE = .024, p = .039, g2 = .019, indicating that goal
much smaller (and even reversed) than the respective effect for specicity affected the change in test performance over time differ-
problem solving goals (Fig. 2a). Both groups with learning goals ently for groups with problem solving goals and groups with learn-
showed slightly better performance in the post-test than in the ing goals (Fig. 2a and b). Whereas we found a clear goal specicity
pre-test (specic goals group: d = 0.171; nonspecic goals group: effect for problem solving goals, for learning goals the respective
d = 0.073). On the other hand, with problem solving goals as shown effect is much smaller.
in Fig. 2a, only the nonspecic goals group slightly increased its
performance from pre-test to post-test (d = .082). 3.2. Cognitive load
In order to test statistical signicance of these results, we com-
puted a three-way repeated measures analysis of variance with Fig. 3 shows the adjusted means of cognitive load for all four
time of administration of the knowledge test (pre-test, post-test), experimental groups. Descriptively, we observed the goal specic-
as the within-subjects factor, and goal specicity and goal type, ity effect on cognitive load for both problem solving goals as well
as the two between-subjects factors. We did not nd a main effect as learning goals (problem solving goals: d = 0.459; learning goals:
of time, F(1,226) < 1. There was also no statistically signicant inter- d = 0.799).
action of time and goal specicity, F(1,226) = 2.247, MSE = 0.024, In order to test statistical signicance of the results, we com-
p = .135, g2 = .010, but there was, according to our expectations, a puted a two-way analysis of variance with cognitive load as the
signicant interaction of time and goal type, F(1,226) = 3.411, dependent variable and goal specicity and goal type as the two
MSE = 0.024, p = .033 (one-tailed), g2 = .015. Students provided between-subjects factors. In line with Fig. 3, we found a main effect
with learning goals showed an increase in test performance (pre- of goal specicity, F(1,224) = 21.036, MSE = 0.038, p < .001, g2 = .087.
test: M = .639, SD = .168; post-test: M = .663, SD = .216; d = 0.125) Students provided with specic goals experienced higher overall

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into schemata, this might lead to incomplete integration and


0.60
Cognitive load (adjusted for intelligence)

incompletely restructured schemata, and, thus, to a decreased per-


formance in the knowledge post-tests.
In line with our hypotheses we found that goal specicity and
0.55 goal type interact concerning the change of knowledge test perfor-
mance from pre-test to post-test. The goal specicity effect is a lot
stronger for problem solving goals than for learning goals. The
0.50 question remains, however, how this interaction can be explained.
It seems that differences in overall cognitive load between groups
cannot sufciently answer this question since we were not able to
nd the corresponding interaction on overall cognitive load.
0.45
Although the specicity of learning goals affected cognitive load
Goal specificity
in the same way as the specicity of problem solving goals, the dif-
Specific goals ference between specic versus nonspecic learning goals obvi-
0.40 Nonspecific goals ously had no inuence on changes in knowledge test
Problem solving goals Learning goals performance from pre-test to post-test.
The results can be interpreted as follows. On the one hand, goal
Goal type
specicity affects element interactivity and, therefore, cognitive
Fig. 3. Means of cognitive load, adjusted for intelligence. load for both, problem solving goals as well as learning goals.
The increased cognitive load associated with increased element
interactivity, due to high goal specicity, does not contribute to
schema acquisition nor rule induction and, therefore, must be con-
cognitive load than students provided with nonspecic goals. sidered as extraneous. On the other hand, goal specicity obviously
There was no main effect of goal type on cognitive load, is not the only factor affecting cognitive load. Probably, there is at
F(1,224) = 1.584, MSE = .038, p = .210, g2 = .007. Also, the interaction least one other factor inducing additional cognitive load. And this
of goal specicity and goal type was not statistically signicant, other factor seems to differ between problem solving goals and
F(1,224) < 1. learning goals.
At this point, the strategy approach to explaining the goal spec-
4. Discussion icity effect on knowledge test performance comes into play. It can
be assumed that students of the specic problem solving goals
In our study we were able to nd the goal specicity effect of group used goal-directed problem solving strategies like, e.g.,
problem solving goals on both, knowledge test performance and means-ends analysis, whereas students of the other experimental
cognitive load. Students provided with nonspecic problem solv- groups were able to use learning strategies (cf., Burns and Vollmey-
ing goals reported lower cognitive load and learned more about er, 2002). Means-ends analysis is a strategy useful for changing a
buoyancy in liquids by conducting experiments in a CBLE than stu- learners external environment in a goal-directed and systematic
dents provided with specic problem solving goals. Thus, we were manner. But since this strategy does not aim at schema acquisition
able to ensure that our computer-based learning environment as nor rule induction it must be considered as inducing extraneous
well as our knowledge tests and our test for measuring (overall) load. Thus, in the specic problem solving goals group, the use of
cognitive load were of sufcient validity and were appropriate to problem solving strategies could add extraneous load to the extra-
detect the goal specicity effect as it is known from the literature. neous load induced by high element interactivity. In contrast,
Relating to previous studies (e.g., Burns and Vollmeyer, 2002; Paas learning strategies, as for example the history-cued strategy, aim
et al., 2001; Sweller, 1988), our results give further support to the at changing a learners internal mental state, that is, they aim at
assumption that the goal specicity effect of problem solving goals schema acquisition or rule induction. Therefore, they also induce
can be generalized over various domains as well as various kinds of additional cognitive load, but this kind of cognitive load seems to
problem solving environments. be germane load. Assuming different kinds of cognitive load asso-
However, with problem solving goals, the goal specicity effect ciated with either problem solving strategies or learning strategies
on knowledge test performance is mostly due to a decreased per- could explain why both groups with learning goals (specic as well
formance of the specic goals group in the post-test. This perfor- as nonspecic learning goals) as well as the nonspecic problem
mance reduction from pre-test to post-test in the specic solving goals group showed better performance on the knowledge
problem solving goals group might be due to the fact, that the stu- post-test than the specic problem solving goals group. It could be
dents in this group as well as the students in the other three assumed that only the specic problem solving goals group used
experimental groups showed a comparably high level of perfor- problem solving strategies inducing additional extraneous load
mance in the pre-test. Students obviously already possessed suit- and therefore reducing germane load whereas the other three
able schemata and rules when starting to conduct the simulated groups used learning strategies and therefore did not experience
physics experiments. Thus, learning meant not only to acquire increased extraneous load. Probably, the overall cognitive load of
new schemata and rules but also to modify and extend existing groups with learning goals as well as the group with nonspecic
schemata and rules and to integrate new information into them. problem solving goals had a greater portion of germane load in-
It can be assumed, on the one hand, that pursuing specic problem cluded as it can be assumed for the cognitive load of the group with
solving goals leads to a great number of information that, for learn- specic problem solving goals.
ing, must be integrated into existing schemata and rules. But, on Using the strategy approach for explaining our results is spec-
the other hand, pursuing specic problem solving goals draws ulative as it relies on two assumptions that cannot be proved by
heavily on working memory capacity (e.g., because of using the the data of the presented study. First, it must be assumed that
capacity demanding means-ends analysis). Integrating information the overall cognitive load of the groups using learning strategies
and restructuring existing schemata also draws heavily on working (i.e., the groups with specic or nonspecic learning goals as well
memory capacity. If working memory capacity is not sufcient for as the group with nonspecic problem solving goals) did not ex-
both, pursuing problem solving goals and integrating information ceed the limits of working memory whereas the overall cognitive

Please cite this article in press as: Wirth, J., et al. The impact of goal specicity and goal type on learning outcome and cognitive load.
Computers in Human Behavior (2009), doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.12.004
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Please cite this article in press as: Wirth, J., et al. The impact of goal specicity and goal type on learning outcome and cognitive load.
Computers in Human Behavior (2009), doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.12.004