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An Evaluation of the Reliability, Validity and Sensitivity of Three Human Mental Workload Measures Under Different Instructional Conditions in Third-Level Education

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Although Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has been researched for many years, it has been criticised for its theoretical clarity and its methodological approach. A crucial issue is the measurement of three types of cognitive load conceived in the theory, and the assessment of overall human cognitive load during learning tasks. This research study is motivated by these issues and it aims to investigate the reliability, validity and sensitivity of three existing self-reporting mental workload instruments, mainly used in Ergonomics, when applied to Education and in particular to the field of Teaching and Learning. A primary research study has been designed and performed in a typical third-level classroom in Computer Science, and the self-reporting mental workload instruments employed are the NASA Task Load Index, the Workload Profile and the Rating Scale Mental Effort. Three instructional design conditions have been designed and employed for the above purposes. The first design condition followed the traditional explicit instruction paradigm whereby a lecturer delivers instructional material mainly using a one-way approach with almost no interactions with students. The second design condition was inspired by the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning whereby the same content, delivered under the first condition, was converted in a multimedia video by following a set of its design principles. The third design condition was an extension of the second condition whereby an inquiry activity was executed after the delivery of the second condition. The empirical evidence gathered in this study suggests that the three selected mental workload measures are highly reliable. Their moderate face validity is in line with the results obtained so far within Ergonomics emphasising and confirming the difficulty in creating optimally valid measures of mental workload. However, the sensitivity of these measures, as achieved in this study, is low, indicating how the three instructional design conditions, as conceived and implemented, do not impose significantly different mental workload levels on learners.
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An evaluation of the reliability, validity and sensitivity of
three human mental workload measures under different
instructional conditions in third-level education
Luca Longo1,2, Giuliano Orru1
1School of Computing, College of Sciences and Health, Dublin Institute of Technology
2ADAPT: The global centre of excellence for digital content and media innovation.
Dublin, Republic of Ireland
luca.longo@dit.ie
Abstract. Although Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has been researched for many
years, it has been criticised for its theoretical clarity and its methodological ap-
proach. A crucial issue is the measurement of three types of cognitive load con-
ceived in the theory, and the assessment of overall human cognitive load during
learning tasks. This research study is motivated by these issues and it aims to
investigate the reliability, validity and sensitivity of three existing self-reporting
mental workload instruments, mainly used in Ergonomics, when applied to Edu-
cation and in particular to the field of Teaching and Learning. A primary research
study has been designed and performed in a typical third-level classroom in Com-
puter Science, and the self-reporting mental workload instruments employed are
the NASA Task Load Index, the Workload Profile and the Rating Scale Mental
Effort. Three instructional design conditions have been designed and employed
for the above purposes. The first design condition followed the traditional explicit
instruction paradigm whereby a lecturer delivers instructional material mainly us-
ing a one-way approach with almost no interactions with students. The second
design condition was inspired by the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
whereby the same content, delivered under the first condition, was converted in
a multimedia video by following a set of its design principles. The third design
condition was an extension of the second condition whereby an inquiry activity
was executed after the delivery of the second condition. The empirical evidence
gathered in this study suggests that the three selected mental workload measures
are highly reliable. Their moderate face validity is in line with the results obtained
so far within Ergonomics emphasising and confirming the difficulty in creating
optimally valid measures of mental workload. However, the sensitivity of these
measures, as achieved in this study, is low, indicating how the three instructional
design conditions, as conceived and implemented, do not impose significantly
different mental workload levels on learners.
Keywords: Cognitive Load Theory; Cognitive Load Types; Human Mental Workload;
Instructional Design; Direct instructions; Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning;
Inquiry methods; Community of Inquiry; Reliability; Validity; Sensitivity;
1 Introduction
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has been designed to guide instructional designers and
practitioners keen to develop instructional resources aimed at promoting the activities of
learners, increase their performance and optimise their learning [8,56]. Although CLT
has been investigated for many years, developing a set of guidelines aimed at creating
effective instructional designs, it has been subjects of multiple critiques due to its the-
oretical clarity [54] and its methodological approach [15]. In detail, a central problem
is the measurement of the overall cognitive load of learners while performing learning
activities [43]. Three types of cognitive load have been conceptualised and identified
within CLT: intrinsic, extraneous and germane. These are the fundamental assumptions
that compose the theory itself. The intrinsic load can be influenced by the familiarity
of the learners on a given subject or the intrinsic difficulty and complexity of the learn-
ing material to be exploited. The extraneous load can altered by the procedure used to
design, organise and deliver instructional material. The germane load is influenced by
the effort exerted by learners for handling information, development and automation
of schemas in their brains. However, taking into consideration the Popperian’s view on
critical rationalism [47], CLT cannot be treated a scientific theory due to the lack of
clear procedures to measure its fundamental building blocks - the cognitive load types -
and thus their empirically validation. As a consequence the theory is believed not to be
falsifiable [15]. in other terms, the scientific value of the Cognitive Load Theory and all
the other theories built upon the notion of cognitive load [16,15] still lack empirical val-
idation. The main research challenge in this area concerns the development of reliable
and valid measures of the cognitive load types and the development of overall mea-
sures of cognitive load that can be applied in the general field of Education and in the
specific field of Teaching and Learning. Unfortunately, although significant advances
in Educational Psychology, limited research has been done towards the development of
cognitive load assessment techniques [2,1,10,45,6]. The situation is similar in the more
specific field of Teaching and Learning [57,19,45].
A domain in which cognitive load has been extensively researched and applied is
Ergonomics [64] (Human Factors). In this discipline, the construct of mental workload
(MWL), almost overlapping with the construct of cognitive load, has a long history with
a plethora of applications for example in the field of aviation [25,24,18] and automotive
industry [5]. In these applications, several assessment procedures, both uni-dimensional
and multi-dimensional, have been proposed [7,64]. As a consequence, several MWL
measures exist in the literature. Similarly, various criteria for validating these measures
have been recommended highlighting the continuous interest on MWL research [52].
Taking a broad view, the main logic behind measuring mental workload, in Ergonomics,
is to quantify the amount of mental activity devoted to performing a task for predicting
human performance and in turn system performance [7]. In Education, the goal is anal-
ogous: the logic behind measuring mental workload is to quantify the mental cost of
performing a learning task with the objective of predicting the performance of a learner
and in turn estimate learning.
This research study is an attempt to bridge the gap present in educational psychol-
ogy concerned with the measurement of cognitive load by adopting existing measures of
mental workload borrowed from Ergonomics. The aim of this study, initiated in [29,42]
and extended here, is to evaluate the reliability, validity and sensitivity of three mental
workload measures from ergonomics, namely the multidimensional Nasa Task Load In-
dex [18] and Workload Profile [59] as well as the unidimensional Rating Scale Mental
Effort [66]. A primary research study has been designed including the comparison of
three different instructional design conditions in a third-level master module. The first
condition includes the delivery of instructional material using a traditional one-way di-
rect instruction approach (lecturer to students). The second design condition includes
the conversion of the instructional material of the first condition into multimedia videos
developed by following a set of design principles developed within the Cognitive The-
ory of Multimedia Learning [36]. The third design condition extends the second design
condition by adding a collaborative group activity inspired by the concept of Com-
munity of Inquiry [13,4] aimed at extending understanding. Figure 1 summarises this
research by presenting its key components, the limitations as emerged in literature, the
design of a primary research experiment as well as its evaluation.
Fig. 1: Summary of the primary research, its motivation and its main components
The rest of the paper is shaped as below. Section 2 introduces Cognitive Load
Theory and its cognitive load types. It follows a description of the general issues sur-
rounding other cognitive load-based theories and a brief presentation of state-of-the-art
mental workload assessment techniques in Ergonomics, with their advantages and lim-
itations. Afterwards, the paper puts the focus on three self-reporting mental workload
procedures because of their adoption in this research. Cognitive Theory of Multime-
dia Learning, its design principles as well as the Community of Inquiry paradigm, a
social constructivist approach for teaching, are described to provide the reader with
those relevant notions for understanding the planned experiment. Section 3 focuses on
the construction of a primary research experiment with human learners, detailing the
methodology and formalising the research hypotheses. Section 4 and 5 respectively
present experimental results and critically discuss them emphasising the contribution to
the body of knowledge. Section 6 concludes the paper and introduces future work.
2 Theoretical background
2.1 Cognitive load theory
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) [56] has been conceived as a form of guidance for in-
structional designers eager to create resources that are presented in a way that encour-
ages the activities of the learners and optimise their performance, thus their learning [8].
CLT is an approach that considers the limitations of the information processing system
of the human mind [61]. The intuitive assumption behind this theory is that if a learner
is either underloaded or overloaded, learning is likely to be adversely affected. In detail,
the assumption of Cognitive Load Theory is that the capabilities of the human cognitive
architecture devoted to the processing and retention of information are limited [39] and
these limitations have a straight influence on learning. Unfortunately, the experience
of mental workload is highly likely to be different on an individual basis, changing
according to the learner’s cognitive style, the own education and training [44]. As a
consequence, modelling and assessing cognitive load is far from being a trivial activity.
In his seminal contribution, [56] have proposed three types of cognitive load:
intrinsic load - this is influenced by the unfamiliarity of the learners or the intrinsic
complexity of the learning material under use [2,55];
extraneous load - this is impacted by the way the instructional material is designed,
organised and presented [9];
germane load - this is influenced by the effort devoted for processing information,
for the construction and automation of schemas in the brain of the learners [44].
Intrinsic cognitive load is considered being static, extraneous load should be minimised
[40] and germane load promoted [11]. Cognitive Load Theory, although highly relevant
for instructional design and with a plethora of theoretical material that has been pub-
lished in the last few decades, has a fundamental, open and challenging problem: the
measurement of its three cognitive load types [10,54,43]. Unfortunately, there is little
evidence that these three types are highly separable [12,58,9]. Similarly, to date, there
is little evidence about the ways the three different types of load can be coherently and
robustly measured [14,43]. According to the traditional critical rationalism proposed
by Karl [47], CLT cannot be considered a scientific theory because some of its funda-
mental assumptions cannot be tested empirically and are thus not falsifiable [15]. To be
scientific, the measurement methods about a hypothesis must be sensitive to the differ-
ent types of load. CLT must provide empirical demonstrations about the cognitive load
types (its fundamental assumptions). As a consequence, the main research challenge is
the development of a valid measure of cognitive load and the demonstration of the sci-
entific value of Cognitive Load Theory and all the other theories built upon it [16,15].
CLT has mainly been developed by educational psychologists and evolved over almost
three decades of research endeavour in the field of education. Despite the theoretical
evolution of this theory, and the many ah-hoc, domain and context-specific applications
based upon it, the practical measurement of cognitive load has not been sufficiently
investigated in education. In contrast to this, the situation is different in the field of Er-
gonomics, where more effort has been devoted towards the development of cognitive
load assessment techniques. In this discipline, cognitive load is mainly referred to as
human Mental Workload (MWL), a well known psychological construct [7,61,64].
2.2 Human Mental Workload
The concept of human Mental Workload (MWL) has a long history in the fields of
ergonomics and psychology, with several applications in the aviation and automotive
industries. Although it has been studied for the last four decades, no clear definition of
MWL has emerged that has a general validity and that is universally accepted [7,27,49].
The main reason for assessing MWL is to measure the mental cost of performing a
certain task with the goal of predicting operator and system performance [7]. MWL is
an important design criterion: at an early system design phase not only can a system
or interface be optimised to take workload into consideration, but MWL can also guide
designers in making appropriate structural changes [33,63]. Modern technologies such
as web applications have become increasingly complex [23,32,28], with increments in
the degree of MWL imposed on operators [17,22]. The assumption in design approaches
is that as the difficulty of a task increases, perhaps due to interface complexity, MWL
also increases and performance usually decreases [7]. In turn, errors are more frequent,
there are longer response times, and fewer tasks are completed per time unit. When task
difficulty is negligible, systems can impose a low MWL on operators: this should be
avoided as it leads to difficulties in maintaining attention and increasing reaction time
[7]. In the following sections it is shown how MWL can be measured and the formalisms
to aggregate heterogeneous factors towards an overall index of mental workload. This
review of current solutions is aimed at identifying both reasons why a more generally
applicable measure of MWL has not yet been developed, and the key characteristics of
MWL representation and assessment.
Measures of mental workload The measurement of mental workload is a vast and het-
erogeneous topic as the related theoretical counterpart. Several assessment techniques
have been proposed in the last 40 years, and researchers in applied settings have tended
to prefer the use of ad hoc measures or pools of measures rather than any one measure.
This tendency is reasonable, given the multi-dimensional property that characterises
mental workload [31,26,41]. Many approaches to operationalise mental workload as
a computational concept have been proposed as in [50,41,49,25,30]. Similarly, Vari-
ous reviews attempted to organise the vast amount of knowledge behind MWL mea-
sures and assessment techniques [27,62,7,65]. In general, the measurement techniques
of MWL can be classified into three broad categories:
self-assessment measures including self-report measures and subjective rating scales;
task performance measures which consider primary and secondary task measures;
physiological measures which are derived from the physiology of the operator.
The class of self-report measures is often referred to as subjective measures. This
category relies on the subjective perceived experience of the interaction operator-system.
Subjective measures have always appealed many workload practitioners and researchers
because it is strongly believed that only the person concerned with the task can provide
an accurate and precise judgement with respect to the mental workload experienced.
Various dimensions and attributes of mental workload are considered in self-report mea-
sures. These include demands, performance, effort as well as individual differences such
as the emotional state, attitude and motivation of the operator [5,30]. The class of sub-
jective measures include multi-dimensional approaches such as the NASA Task Load
Index [18], the Subjective Workload Assessment Technique [48], the Workload Profile
[59] as well as uni-dimensional approaches such as the Rating Scale Mental Effort [66],
the Subjective Workload Dominance Technique [60] and the Bedford scale [51]. These
measures and scales are mostly close-ended and, in case multidimensional, they have
an aggregation strategy that combines the dimensions they are built upon to an overall
index of mental workload. The class of task performance measures assumes that mental
workload practitioners and, more generally system designers, are typically concerned
with the performance of their systems and technologies. The assumption is that the
mental workload of an operator, when interacting with a system, acquires importance
only if it influences system performance. As a consequence, it is believed that this class
of techniques is the most valuable options for designers. According to different reviews
[7,62], performance measures can be classified into two sub-categories: primary task
and secondary task measures. In primary-task methods the performance of the operator
is monitored and analysed according to changes in primary-task demands. Examples of
common measurement parameters are response and reaction time, accuracy and error
rate, speed and signal detection performance, estimation time and tapping regularity.
In secondary-task assessment procedures, there are two tasks involved and the perfor-
mance of the secondary task may not have practical importance, but rather may serves
to load or to measure the mental workload of the operator performing the primary task.
The class of physiological measures includes bodily responses derived from the opera-
tor’s physiology, and it relies on the assumption that they correlate with mental work-
load. They are aimed at interpreting psychological processes by analysing their effect on
the state of the body, rather than measuring task performance or perceptual subjective
ratings. Example includes heart rate, pupil dilation and blinking, blood pressure, brain
activation signals as measured by electroencephalograms (EEG) and muscle signals as
measured by electromyograms (EMG). The principal reason for adopting physiological
measures is because they do not require an overt response by the operator and they can
be collected continuously, within an interval of time, representing an objective way of
measuring the operator state.
Subjective measures are in general easy to administer and analyse. They provide an
index of overall workload and multi-dimensional measures can determine the source
of mental workload. However, the main drawback is that they can only be administered
post-task, thus influencing the reliability for long tasks. In addition, meta-cognitive limi-
tations can diminish the accuracy of reporting and it is difficult to perform comparisons
among raters on an absolute scale. However, they appear to be the most appropriate
types of measurement for assessing mental workload because they have demonstrated
high levels of sensitivity and diagnosticity [52]. Task performance measures can be pri-
mary or secondary. Primary-task measures represent a direct index of performance and
they are accurate in measuring long periods of mental workload. They are capable of
discriminating individual differences in resource competition. However, the main lim-
itation is that they cannot distinguish performance of multiple tasks that are executed
simultaneously by an operator. If taken in isolation, they do not represent reliable mea-
sures, though if used in conjunction with other measures, such as subjective ratings,
they can be useful. Secondary task measures have the capacity of discriminating be-
tween tasks when no differences are detected in primary performance. They are useful
for quantifying the individual’s spare attentional capacity as well as short periods of
workload. However, they are only sensitive to large changes in mental workload and
they might be highly intrusive, influencing the behaviours of users while interacting
with the primary task. Physiological measures are extremely good at monitoring data
on a continuous interval, thus having high measurement sensitivity. They do not inter-
fere with the performance on the primary task. However, the main drawback is that
they can be easily confounded by external interference. Moreover, they require equip-
ment and tools that are often physically obtrusive and the analysis of data is complex,
requiring well trained experts. In the experimental study carried out in this research,
subjective mental workload measures have been adopted because they are easy to be
administered in a typical third-level classroom. Primary and secondary task measures
would have been intrusive and would have influenced the natural behaviour of learners
in the classroom. Physiological measures would have been physically obtrusive, requir-
ing expensive equipment to be attached to the body of each learner. The next sections
describe the three MWL assessment techniques adopted in the current study, describing
their formalism to produce a quantifiable score of mental workload.
2.3 Subjective workload measures
The NASA Task Load Index (NASATLX) instrument is a subjective self-assessment
measure of mental workload [18]. It has been extensively applied within Ergonomics
in many socio-technical domains, and validated mainly in the transportation industry
[18,52]. The measure is built upon six dimensions that are thought to affect mental
workload, as described in a number of papers [34,24,29]. Each dimension is assessed
with a self-reported judgement by a human, and a weight for each dimension is com-
puted through a paired comparison across dimensions. A subject, after executing a task,
is required to express, for each possible pair of the 6 dimensions, (binomial coefficient,
6
2= 15) , a preference indicating which of the two had a greater contribution to men-
tal workload while executing the underlying task. A weight wfor a given dimension is
the number of times it was picked as preference in the pairwise procedure. Given the 6
dimensions of the Nasa Task Load Index, each weight is therefore in the range 0(not
relevant) to 5(more important than any other dimension). The final mental workload
score is inferred as a weighed average, taking into account each subjective rating for a
dimension diand the correspondent weights wi(equation 1). For comparison purposes
in this research, the overall measure is scaled within [1..100] ∈ <. The questionnaire
can be found in table 13 (appendix).
N ASAT LX : [0..100] ∈ < = 6
X
i=1
di×wi!1
15 (1)
The Workload Profile (WP) is a mental workload assessment procedure [59] developed
upon the Multiple Resource Theory [61]. According to this theory, humans are seen as
having different capacities or ‘attentional resources’ related to:
stage of information processing – perceptual/central processing and response selec-
tion/execution;
code of information processing – spatial/verbal;
input – visual and auditory processing;
output – manual and speech output.
As described in other articles [34,24,29], each dimension is assessed through sub-
jective rates and an individual, after task completion, is required to rate the proportion
of attentional resources elicited while performing the task itself. This self-reporting is
done expressing a quantity within the range 0..1∈ <. A rating of 0indicates that
the task performed placed no demand while 1that it required maximum attention. The
overall measure of mental worklad is a sum of the 8 rates d(equation 2). For com-
parison purposes in this research, the overall measure is scaled within [1..100] ∈ <.
The questionnaire associated to the Workload Profile measure can be found in table 14
(appendix).
W P : [0..100] ∈ < W P =1
8
8
X
i=1
di×100 (2)
The Rating Scale Mental Effort (RSME) is a unidimensional mental workload assess-
ment procedure that is built upon the notion of effort exerted by a human over a task.
As described in other contributions in the literature [34,24,29], a subjective rating is
required by an individual through an indication on a continuous line, within the interval
0 to 150 with ticks each 10 units [66]. Example of labels such as ‘absolutely no effort’,
‘considerable effort’ and ‘extreme effort’ are used along the line (Appendix, table 12).
The overall mental workload of an individual coincides to the experienced exerted ef-
fort indicated on the line (equation 3. On one hand, although simplicity, the RSME has
demonstrated a good degree of sensitivity across different empirical studies. However,
on the other hand, it has shown a poor diagnostic power [66].
RSM E : [0..150] ∈ < (3)
2.4 Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
Another cognitivist theory of learning is the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
(CTML) [36,35]. It is strongly connected to other learning theories, including Sweller’s
Cognitive Load Theory. CTML is based upon three assumptions (figure 2):
dual-channel assumption - this assumption has been inspired by the dual-coding
approach of [46] whereby two separate channels are available for processing infor-
mation in the human brain, namely the auditory and the visual channel;
limited processing capacity assumption - in line with the Baddeley’s model of
working memory [3] and following the assumption of Cognitive Load Theory [56],
each channel has a finite, limited capacity;
active processing assumption - learning is an active process for the selection, filter-
ing, organisation of new information and its integration with prior knowledge.
Fig. 2: The model behind Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
Humans are capable of processing a finite amount of information in each channel
at a given time. In details, according to CTML, the human brain does not interpret
multimedia instructions composed by words, auditory and pictorial information in a
mutually exclusive way. Instead, these types of information are firstly selected and then
dynamically organised to produce schemas, which are mental logical representations.
Schemas are cognitive constructs in which information is organised for storage in long-
term memory. Similarly, they can organise simpler elements in a way that these can
subsequently act as elements in higher-order schemas. Learning coincides with the de-
velopment of complex schema as well as the transferring of those learned procedures
from controlled processing to automated processing. This shift empties working mem-
ory that can then be used for other cognitive processes. [37] suggested five ways for
representing words and pictures while information is processed in memory. These are
particular stages of processing information. The first stage is represented by words and
pictures in the multimedia presentation layer. The second stage includes the acoustic
(sounds) and iconic representation (images) in sensory memory. The third stage coin-
cides the sounds and images within working memory. The fourth stage, always within
working memory, concerns with the verbal and pictorial models. The fifth stage relates
prior knowledge, (the schemas), stored in long-term memory.
Mayer proposed a set of design principles for creating instructions aligned to the
above assumptions and stages. Readers can obtain more information on the principles
in [38]. Generally speaking, these design principles suggest to provide learners with co-
herent instructional material in the form of verbal and pictorial information. Coherent
information aims to guide learners in the selection of the relevant words and pictures
and reduce the cognitive load in each elicited channel. CTML is strictly connected to the
Cognitive Load Theory because its twelve principles can be grouped according to the
three types of loads - reducing extraneous load: coherence, signaling, redundancy, spa-
tial contiguity, temporal contiguity; managing intrinsic load - segmenting, pre-training,
modality; fostering; germane load - multimedia, personalisation, voice, image. These
principles have emerged from more than 100 studies conducted in the field [38]. In
addition to these, advanced principles have been proposed by Mayer in a number of
papers, and recently updated [35]. This demonstrates how CTML is a dynamic theory,
suggesting how its principles should not be taken rigidly, but as a starting point for
discussion and experimentation. Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning has been
described for providing the readers with those key elements necessary for the compre-
hension of the primary research experiment presented in this paper.
2.5 The community of inquiry
A Community of Inquiry (COI) can be defined as a group formed by people interacting
within a social context with the goal of investigating the limits of a problematic concept
by means of a dialog [13]. ‘Dialog’ is not a discussion nor a conversation. One one
hand, a discussion is a persuasive debate where participants explain their own ideas in
at attempt to persuade the other participants. It is a competitive dialectical exchange of
ideas that usually ends up with the definition of the correct one, emphasising a winner.
On the other hand, a conversation is a spontaneous exchange of ideas and sharing of
information. There is no a well-defined way of conversing, leaving learners to develop
and build the conversation entirely on their own. The expected outcome is that learners
can transfer learned concepts to a new context, and thus expanding their vocabulary
and abilities. Instead, a dialog focuses on the thinking of the group as a whole, with
the objective of processing certain information aimed both at expanding individual and
group knowledge as well as to increase understanding [4].
A pedagogical framework built upon the above definition of dialog is the ‘Philoso-
phy for Children’ proposed by Mathew Lipman [20] and exploited in the project NO-
RIA [53]. This framework proposes a set of questions aimed at exercising the cognitive
abilities of a learner and at developing a higher level of thinking. Lipman, in his work
[21], presents a model of reasoning considered to be a genuine and fundamental aspect
of any instructional process: the complex thinking. This model is an educational process
composed by three ways of thinking: critical, creative and caring thinking. The critical
thinking is based upon the formulation of judgements and it is commanded by the cri-
teria of logic, it is self-corrective and sensitive to a context. The dialogue elicits the
capacity to think about the thinking (metacognition). In order be understood by others
participants within a dialogue, a learner has to clearly explain owns ideas. This com-
municative requirement leads to a self-correction activity sensitive to the underlying
context. The creative thinking is similar to critical thinking in the way of formulating
judgements. However, these judgements are strictly related to the underlying context.
This type of thinking is self-transcendent and sensitive to the criteria of logic but not
governed by them. The caring thinking aims to develop practices regarding the sub-
stantial and procedural reflection connected to the resolution of some problem. It is
sensitive to the context and it requires metacognitive processes of thinking in order to
formulate practical judgments. Within the Community of Inquiry, the development of
complex thinking occurs in a process of discovery learning. This process embraces the
three type of thinking and it focused on generating and answering philosophical and
cognitive questions on logic (critical thinking), aesthetic (creative thinking) and ethic
(caring thinking). The Community of Inquiry paradigm has been described for provid-
ing the readers with those key notions necessary for the comprehension of the primary
research experiment presented in this paper.
3 Design and methodology
A primary research has been designed to investigate the reliability, validity and sensitiv-
ity of the three selected subjective mental workload measures (NASA, WP, RSME). An
experiment has been conducted in the School of Computing at the Dublin Institute of
Technology, Ireland, in the context of an MSc module: ‘Research design and proposal
writing’. This module is taught both to full-time and part-time students. The main dif-
ference between full-timers and part-timers is the way classes are planned. Full-timers
attend 12 classes within an academic semester, of 2 hours each, on a day of the week.
Part-timers attend 4 classes of 6 hours, within an academic semester and each class is
scheduled on a Saturday and are usually separated by a period of 3 to 4 weeks of inactiv-
ity. Full-timers have usually no break during their classes, while part-timers, given the
long day in the classroom, have two to three breaks (coffees and lunch). In this research
study, conducted over a period of three years (from 2015 to 2017), four topics were de-
livered to different groups of students, both full-timers and part-timers, in the first part
of each academic semester: ‘Science’, ‘The Scientific Method’ ‘Planning Research’ and
‘Literature Review’. The remaining topics, taught in the second part of semester, were
focused more on practical activities whereby students had to put in practice the theo-
retical notions provided in the first part of the semester. Three instructional conditions
were designed. The first condition included the delivery of instructional material using
a traditional one-way direct instructional approach (lecturer to students). The second
design condition included the conversion of the instructional material of the first condi-
tion into multimedia videos developed by following a set of design principles proposed
within the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning [36] (as described in section 2.4).
The third design condition extends the second design condition by adding to it a col-
laborative group activity inspired by the notion of Community of Inquiry [13,4] aimed
at extending the understanding of learners (as described in section 2.5). Here the cohort
of students is divided into groups composed by 3 or 4 persons performing a collabo-
rative activity. In detail, the differences between the first and the second condition are
described in table 15, grouped by the underpinning principles of the CTML. The details
of the activity carried out in the third condition are explicated in table 16. Figure 3 and
4 respectively summarise the instructional conditions and the entire research design.
Fig. 3: Differences between the three instructional design conditions
Fig. 4: Layout of the design of the experiment: three mental workload measures evalu-
ated over three design conditions and three taught topics
Informally, the research hypotheses are that the NASA Task Load Index, the Work-
load Profile and the Rating scale mental effort are reliable and valid measures of mental
workload when applied in an educational context. If this will be the case, then the ex-
tent to which these measures can discriminate the selected topics, the three instructional
conditions as well as the classes delivered will be investigated by computing a measure
of their sensitivity. Table 1 lists the criteria for evaluating the selected mental workload
measures, their definition, the associated statistical test and the expected outcome. Note
that both forms of validity are expected to be moderate. A high degree of face validity
would imply that participants could subjectively and precisely assess the construct of
mental workload as good as the selected MWL measures. Therefore these measures
would not have reason to exist as participants can precisely assess mental workload
autonomously. Similarly, a high degree of convergent validity would imply that two
different measures assess the construct of mental workload exactly in the same way,
but given the known difficulties in measuring mental workload itself, the chances that
this occurs are low. Thus, a positive moderate correlation is expected for both types of
validity, underlying reasonable relationships between selected MWL measures.
Table 1: Criteria for the evaluation of different mental workload assessment techniques,
their definition, associated statistical tests and the expectations for this primary research
Criteria Definition Statistical test expectation
Reliability the consistency/stability of a MWL measure Cronbach’s Alpha high
Validity
(face)
the extent to which a MWL measure is sub-
jectively viewed as covering MWL itself
Pearson/Spearman
correlation
positive &
moderate
Validity
(convergent)
the degree to which two measures of MWL,
theoretically related, are in fact related
Pearson/Spearman
correlation
positive &
moderate
Sensitivity the extent to which a MWL measure is able
to detect changes in instructional design con-
ditions, topics and classes
ANOVA + t-test/
U-test
moderate
3.1 Participants and procedure
Different cohorts of part-time and full-time students participated in the experimental
research and attended the MSc module ‘Research design and proposal writing’ across
different academic semesters between 2015 and 2017. These cohorts of students at-
tended the four topics (T1-T4) listed in figure 4. Some cohort received the first instruc-
tional condition (DC1), some other the second (DC2) and some other received the third
instructional condition (DC3). At the end of each topic (class), students were asked
to fill questionnaires in, aimed at quantifying the mental workload experienced during
the class. In details, the three selected self-reporting mental workload assessment tech-
niques, as described in section 2.3, were used in the experimental study: the NASA Task
Load Index, the Workload Profile and the Rating Scale Mental Effort. The NASA-TLX
and the WP are multi-dimensional and thus require participants to answer a number of
questions (figures 13 and 14 in appendix). To facilitate the completion of each ques-
tionnaire and not to overwhelm students with many questions, two groups were formed
within the same class, one receiving the NASA-TLX and one the WP. Eventually, both
the groups received the RSME questionnaire (figure 12 in appendix). The rationale was
that, being RSME uni-dimensional, adding one further question to the previous ques-
tionnaires was deemed reasonable. In summary, the groups of each class are as below:
(IRa) MWL instruments received by group A: the NASA-TLX + the RSME
(IRb) MWL instruments received by group B: the WP + the RSME
Table 2 summarises the number of students across the design condition received, the
number of classes for each design condition, across the topics and overall totals.
Table 2: Number of classes, number of students grouped by mental workload instru-
ments received (IRa: NASA-TLX + RSME; IRb: WP + RSME) across design condi-
tions (DC1-3) and topics (T1-4) as well as their totals
Design
T1 T2 T3 T4
TOTALS
classes students classes students classes #students classes students
Condition IRa IRb IRa IRb IRa IRb IRa IRb
DC1 2 13 17 2 20 23 1 11 9 2 20 20 133
DC2 2 23 24 2 16 18 2 22 22 1 13 11 149
DC3 1 9 7 1 10 8 2 15 12 1 9 7 77
TOTALS
Classes 5 5 5 4 19
NASA 45 46 48 42 181
WP 48 49 43 38 178
RSME 45 48 46 49 48 43 42 38 359
The formation of the two groups for each class was random. Groups were planned
to be as balanced as possible. However, some of the student who took part in the ex-
perimental study did not fully complete the administered questionnaires or they left the
class before its administration, therefore associated data was discarded. Students were
instructed about the study and were required to sign a consent form. This documentation
was approved by the ethics committee of the Dublin Institute of Technology. Students
had the right to withdrawn at any time during the experiment and collection of data.
4 Results
Table 3 presents the descriptive statistics showing the average (avg), the standard devia-
tion (std) and the Shapiro-Wilk test (W) of normality of the distributions, of the mental
workload scores obtained across the different topics and the mental workload assess-
ment techniques (NASA, WP, RSME), grouped by design condition (DC1 - DC3) and
topic (T1-T4) along their p-value (p-val). As it is possible to assess from table 3, the
p-values (p-val) of the Shapiro-Wilk test (W) obtained for the NASA-TLX and the WP
measures are greater than the chosen alpha level (α= 0.05), thus, the null hypoth-
esis that the data came from a normally distributed population cannot be rejected (is
accepted). However, for the RSME measure, in most of the cases (highlighted), the p-
values are lower than the alpha value, thus scores do not follow a normal distribution.
Table 3: Average, standard deviation and Shapiro-Wilk test (W) with p-value (p) at 95%
confidence level of the mental workload scores by measure, topic and design condition
Mental Workload measures
Topic Design NASA WP RSME
avg std W(p) avg std W(p) avg std W(p)
T1 DC1 43.6 08.6 0.96(0.69) 58.6 18.8 0.98(0.99) 42.2 20.5 0.89(0.00)
T2 DC1 51.9 11.9 0.95(0.40) 51.9 15.1 0.95(0.27) 57.0 23.0 0.97(0.25)
T3 DC1 50.2 12.8 0.91(0.25) 50.2 15.9 0.91(0.29) 54.9 20.8 0.90(0.04)
T4 DC1 48.3 11.5 0.95(0.32) 56.6 10.9 0.96(0.61) 53.3 20.8 0.97(0.25)
T1 DC2 41.8 17.2 0.98(0.90) 49.2 15.2 0.95(0.34) 45.4 18.6 0.95(0.03)
T2 DC2 50.2 10.8 0.97(0.86) 57.2 09.7 0.95(0.36) 62.0 17.3 0.94(0.06)
T3 DC2 43.5 12.2 0.96(0.43) 51.9 14.1 0.94(0.20) 46.5 18.2 0.94(0.02)
T4 DC2 52.2 16.4 0.96(0.74) 45.5 19.2 0.90(0.17) 59.0 19.0 0.91(0.04)
T1 DC3 38.5 11.3 0.94(0.54) 60.0 14.8 0.85(0.12) 38.0 22.6 0.94(0.31)
T2 DC3 48.2 12.5 0.97(0.88) 50.8 10.3 0.89(0.25) 65.1 24.2 0.85(0.01)
T3 DC3 45.4 14.6 0.98(0.93) 58.6 13.1 0.96(0.77) 51.8 20.2 0.92(0.04)
T4 DC3 48.3 07.6 0.98(0.96) 60.3 11.7 0.96(0.78) 60.3 24.5 0.85(0.01)
4.1 Reliability
To assess the reliability of the selected mental workload measures, the Cronbach’s Al-
pha has been employed. It measures the internal consistency of the items of a multi-
dimensional instrument, that means, how closely related these items are as a group. For
this reason, the Rating Scale Mental Effort is not subject to reliability analysis as it is
uni-dimensional. Table 4 shows the Cronbach’s Alpha coefficients of the other two se-
lected multidimensional mental workload measures (NASA-TLX and the WP), across
all the topics (T1-T4) and the instructional design conditions (DC1-DC3). In most sci-
ences, a reliability coefficient of .70 or higher is considered acceptable to infer that a
scale is a consistent measure of a construct. Therefore, both the NASA-TLX and the WP
can be considered reliable respectively with a coefficient of 0.73 and 0.847. To confirm
this high reliability, Cronbach’s Alpha has been computed also across each topic and
instructional condition (table 5). The alpha scores are mostly above 0.6for the NASA-
TLX and 0.8for the WP strongly suggesting how these measures have an inherent good
reliability.
Table 4: Overall reliability of the multidimensional mental workload measures with
sample size, related number of items in the scales and associated Cronbach’s Alpha
Instrument Sample size # of items Cronbach’s α
NASA 181 6 0.730
WP 178 8 0.847
Table 5: Reliability of the multidimensional MWL measures computed with the Cron-
bach’s α, grouped by topic (T1-4) and design condition (DC1-3)
Topic Design Mental Workload measures
NASA-TLX WP
condition Size αSize α
T1 DC1 13 0.63 17 0.91
T2 DC1 20 0.69 23 0.87
T3 DC1 11 0.59 9 0.93
T4 DC1 20 0.65 20 0.81
T1 DC2 23 0.84 24 0.83
T2 DC2 16 0.56 18 0.67
T3 DC2 22 0.66 22 0.81
T4 DC2 13 0.81 11 0.92
T1 DC3 9 0.72 7 0.88
T2 DC3 10 0.79 8 0.64
T3 DC3 15 0.80 12 0.83
T4 DC3 9 0.24 7 0.80
4.2 Validity
To assess the validity of the three MWL measures, two sub-forms have been selected,
namely face and convergent validity. The former validates the extent to which a MWL
measures is subjectively viewed as covering the construct of MWL itself while the
latter validates the degree to which two measures of MWL, expected to be theoretically
related, are in fact related. To assess face validity, a question on overall MWL has been
designed and asked to students straight after the completion of each class and before
starting to fill the MWL questionnaires in (figure 17). The answers to this new question
have been correlated to the scores of the selected MWL measures (NASA-TLX, WP,
RSME), as listed in table 6.
Table 6: Face validity of the mental workload assessment instruments, namely the Nasa
Task Load Index, The Workload Profile and the Rating Scale Mental Effort, the sample
size, the Pearson and Spearman correlation coefficients
Instrument Sample size Pearson rSpearman ρ
NASA 181 0.49 0.47
WP 178 0.39 0.40
RSME 359 0.42 0.41
To assess convergent validity, the MWL scores produced by the multidimensional
NASA-TLX and the WP measures have been correlated against the MWL scores of
the unidimensional RSME measure. This test was possible because a participant filled
in either the questionnaire associated to the NASA-TLX or WP, and at the same time
the RSME. Correlation between the NASA-TLX and WP cannot be computed because
no participant received the questionnaires associated to these measures at the same
time. Both the Pearson (parametric) and the Spearman’s Rank (non-parametric) cor-
relation coefficients have been employed for computing validity. Both parametric and
non-parametric tests have been employed because not all the distributions of table 3
were normal. Tables 6, 7 respectively shows the correlations for face validity and con-
vergent validity.
Table 7: Convergent validity of the mental workload assessment instruments, sample
size, Pearson and Spearman correlation coefficients
Instrument size Pearson rSpearman ρ
NASA-TLX vs RSME 181 0.49 0.47
WP vs RSME 178 0.29 0.31
4.3 Sensitivity
The sensitivity of the selected MWL measures has been computed by checking whether
the distributions of their scores are statistically significant different across the topics
(T1-T4), the instructional design conditions (DC1-DC3) and the classes (C1-19). Figure
5 depicts the boxplots of these distributions for visual inspection.
Fig. 5: Boxplots of the distributions of the mental workload scores by measure (NASA,
WP, RSME) grouped by topic (T1-T4), design condition (DC1-3) and class (A-S)
Formally, a Kruskal-Walllis analysis with a 95% confidence interval has been con-
ducted. This is equivalent to a one-way analysis of variance on ranks and it is a non-
parametric method for testing whether samples originate from the same distribution.
This has been chosen because not all the distributions of table 3 are normal. As it is
possible to see from table 8, some statistical significant difference was spotted across
topic and classes, but not for instructional design conditions.
Table 8: Comparison of distributions of the workload scores using the Kruskal-Wallis
test with 95% confidence interval (Chi-squared, degrees of freedom and p-values)
Group by NASA WP RSME
X2DF p-val X2DF p-val X2DF p-val
topic (T1-T4) 10.91 3 0.012 0.22 3 0.973 35.66 3 <0.0001
design condition (DC1-3) 2.44 2 0.293 3.43 2 0.179 0.146 2 0.9290
class (C1-19) 20.25 18 0.318 33.30 18 0.015 45.42 18 0.0003
The Kruskal-Walllis test does not precisely tells which distributions are statistically
significantly different. Thus, the Wilcoxon-Matt-Whitney test (or Mann-Whitney U-
test) was employed only where a difference was spotted by the Kruskal-Wallis test. It
is a non-parametric test for comparing the means of two groups that are not normally
distributed. Table 9 lists the comparisons across topics of the NASA-TLX and RSME
scores. Tables 10 and 11 respectively list the comparisons of the WP and RSME scores
by classes. From table 9, the NASA-TLX was able to produce scores significantly dif-
ferent twice across six comparisons while the RSME five times out of six, demonstrat-
ing higher sensitivity across topics. The WP, out of all the possible comparisons across
classes, was able to produce scores significantly different 22 times out of 171 (table 10),
while the RSME 46 out of 171 (table 11), showing a higher sensitivity across classes.
Table 9: P-values of the pairwise U-test with 95% confidence interval by topic
Topic NASA RSME
T1 T2 T3 T1 T2 T3
T2 0.002 - - <0.00001 - -
T3 0.196 0.095 - 0.020 0.0006 -
T4 0.014 0.596 0.241 <0.0001 0.237 0.0241
Table 10: P-values of the pairwise U-test with 95% confidence interval by class for the
Workload Profile scores
Class WP
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R
B 0.93 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
C 1.00 0.684 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
D 0.47 0.27 0.36 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
E 0.29 0.13 0.38 1.00 - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
F 0.28 0.06 0.19 0.93 0.70 - - - - - - - - - - - - -
G 0.72 0.75 0.38 0.13 0.03 0.02 - - - - - - - - - - - -
H 0.36 0.43 0.20 0.12 0.02 0.03 0.58 - - - - - - - - - - -
I 0.88 0.56 1.00 0.38 0.23 0.09 0.35 0.16 - - - - - - - - - -
J 0.37 0.53 0.23 0.24 0.08 0.06 0.31 0.81 0.18 - - - - - - - - -
K 0.26 0.29 0.18 0.06 0.02 0.02 0.37 0.94 0.11 0.83 - - - - - - - -
L 0.11 0.39 0.06 0.09 0.03 0.02 0.12 0.72 0.13 0.71 0.53 - - - - - - -
M 0.15 0.31 0.12 0.09 0.01 0.01 0.18 0.72 0.09 1.00 0.83 0.58 - - - - - -
N 0.10 0.34 0.06 0.07 0.01 0.01 0.18 0.78 0.12 1.00 0.86 0.72 0.96 - - - - -
O 0.15 0.27 0.06 0.01 0.01 0.01 0.20 0.75 0.07 1.00 0.89 0.39 1.00 0.64 - - - -
P 1.00 1.00 0.86 0.20 0.14 0.06 0.61 0.34 0.63 0.28 0.16 0.03 0.14 0.03 0.02 - -
Q 0.96 0.83 0.80 0.17 0.19 0.09 0.66 0.52 1.00 0.37 0.26 0.15 0.14 0.09 0.06 0.93 -
R 0.38 0.51 0.17 0.10 0.02 0.01 0.55 0.65 0.21 0.69 0.82 0.22 0.48 0.36 0.57 0.18 0.27 -
S 0.35 0.64 0.25 0.12 0.03 0.02 0.49 0.91 0.22 0.64 0.79 0.34 0.67 0.54 0.84 0.33 0.41 0.93
Table 11: P-values of the pairwise U-test with 95% confidence interval by class for the
Rating Scale Mental Effort scores
Class RSME
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R
B 0.09 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
C 0.43 0.03 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
D 0.46 0.01 0.81 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
E 0.27 0.33 0.07 0.04 - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
F 0.05 0.95 0.01 0.01 0.34 - - - - - - - - - - - - -
G 0.25 0.01 0.86 0.58 0.01 0.01 - - - - - - - - - - - -
H 0.02 0.49 0.01 0.01 0.10 0.33 0.01 - - - - - - - - - - -
I 0.19 0.01 0.59 0.42 0.02 0.01 0.60 0.01 - - - - - - - - - -
J 0.50 0.45 0.24 0.14 1.00 0.45 0.09 0.18 0.11 - - - - - - - - -
K 0.57 0.03 0.91 0.84 0.15 0.02 0.62 0.01 0.58 0.20 - - - - - - - -
L 0.03 0.88 0.01 0.01 0.17 0.57 0.01 0.67 0.01 0.36 0.03 - - - - - - -
M 0.23 0.06 0.75 0.57 0.03 0.01 0.95 0.01 0.52 0.20 0.96 0.01 - - - - - -
N 0.62 0.24 0.18 0.16 0.60 0.22 0.06 0.07 0.05 0.69 0.31 0.10 0.14 - - - - -
O 0.14 0.76 0.04 0.01 0.60 0.77 0.01 0.26 0.01 0.60 0.04 0.41 0.02 0.29 - - - -
P 0.67 0.07 0.71 0.83 0.13 0.02 0.58 0.01 0.27 0.35 0.80 0.01 0.59 0.28 0.06 - - -
Q 0.91 0.10 0.35 0.35 0.32 0.06 0.17 0.02 0.13 0.45 0.56 0.03 0.30 0.57 0.12 0.57 - -
R 0.38 0.28 0.08 0.05 0.93 0.37 0.01 0.09 0.03 0.88 0.15 0.25 0.02 0.55 0.57 0.16 0.32 -
S 0.80 0.21 0.33 0.28 0.46 0.14 0.14 0.06 0.09 0.67 0.35 0.07 0.30 0.78 0.22 0.50 0.82 0.46
5 Discussion
Two multidimensional and a unidimensional subjective mental workload (MWL) mea-
sures, borrowed from the discipline of Ergonomics, have been employed in a novel
primary research experiment within Education. The former are the Nasa Task Load
Index [18] and the Workload Profile [59] while the latter is the Rating Scale Mental
Effort [66]. These measures have been applied in a typical third-level classroom in
the context of a module taught in the School of Computing, at the Dublin Institute of
Technology. The experiment included the quantification and analysis of the experienced
mental workload of different cohorts of students who were exposed to three different
instructional design conditions and four topics. An analysis of the reliability of the two
multidimensional MWL measures has been performed through a quantification of their
internal consistency. In details, Cronbach’s Alpha has been employed to assess the re-
lation of the items associated to each MWL assessment technique. An obtained alpha
value of 0.73 for the NASA task Load Index suggested that all its items share high
covariance and probably measure the underlying construct (mental workload). The sit-
uation is similar for the Workload Profile with an even higher alpha of 0.847. Although
the standards for what can be considered a ‘good’ alpha coefficient are entirely arbi-
trary and depend on the theoretical knowledge of the scales in question, results are in
line with what literature recommends: a minimum coefficient between 0.65 and 0.8is
required for reliability.
Having reliable multidimensional measures of mental workload, an analysis of their
validity has been subsequently performed, extended also to the selected unidimensional
MWL measure, namely the Rating Scale Mental Effort. In detail, two forms of validity
were assessed: face and convergent validity. The former validity indicates the extent to
which the three employed MWL measures - the Nasa Task Load Index (NASA-TLX),
the Workload Profile (WP) and the Rating Scale Mental Effort (RSME) - are subjec-
tively viewed as covering the construct of MWL itself by students. The latter validity
indicates the degree to which the two multidimensional measures of MWL are theo-
retically related with the unidimensional measure. The obtained positive Pearson and
Spearman correlation coefficients suggest how the three MWL measures are moder-
ately correlated to the overall mental workload self-reported by students (correlations
between 039 0.49), thus demonstrating, as expected, moderate face validity. Sim-
ilarly, the achieved positive Pearson and Spearman correlation coefficients show the
expected moderate relationships that exist between the two multidimensional MWL
measures (NASA-TLX and WP) and the unidimensional MWL measure (RSME), thus
demonstrating moderate convergent validity. Eventually, with highly reliable and mod-
erately valid MWL measures, their sensitivity was subsequently computed. Sensitivity
referred to the extent to which the three selected MWL measures were able to detect
changes of MWL scores across the four topics, the three instructional design condi-
tions and the nineteen classes delivered over a period of 3 years. In detail, sensitivity
was assessed through a non-parametric analysis of the variance of the MWL scores by
adopting the Kruskal-Walllis test. This test was able to detect some statistical significant
difference of the MWL scores across topic and classes, but not for instructional design
conditions. Subsequently, an extended analysis of these detected differences was per-
formed by a pairwise comparison of the MWL distributions employing the Wilcoxon-
Matt-Whitney test (or Mann-Whitney U-test). The test showed how the NASA Task
Load index was able to detect some of the differences in MWL scores only across
topics while the Workload Profile only across classes. However, the unidimensional
Rating Scale Mental Effort scale succeeded in detecting differences in MWL scores
across topics and classes. None of the three measures was able to detect differences in
MWL scores across the design conditions suggesting how they did not really impacted
the variation of mental workload experienced by students. Figure 6 summarises the
findings visually comparing the reliability, validity and sensitivity of the three selected
mental workload measures.
Cronbach’s α
1
0.75
0.5
Pearson ρ
1
0.5
0.25
Statistically significant differences detected
1
0.3
0.13
Reliability Validity Sensitivity
(Internal) (face) by topic by delivery by class
NASA-TLX
WP
RSME
Fig. 6: Comparison of the reliability, validity and sensitivity of the Nasa Task Load In-
dex (NASA-TLX), the Workload Profile (WP) and Rating Scale Mental Effort (RSME)
Intuitively, given the strong reliability and moderate validity achieved by these mea-
sures, it is reasonable to infer that the design principles from the Cognitive Theory of
Multimedia Learning - applied to design the second instructional condition - and the ap-
plication of the Community of Inquiry approach - employed to design the third instruc-
tional condition - were, in this primary research, as not effective as expected, despite the
different expectation. This research contributes to the body of knowledge by offering an
alternative application of existing measures of mental workload, mainly adopted within
Ergonomics, in Education, and in particular within the field of Teaching and Learning.
Additionally, the experiment proposed in this study is in line to the Popperian’s view
of falsifiability because it is transparent and can be replicated and eventually falsified.
Every attempt aimed at falsifying the findings achieved in this research is not seen as
a negative pursuit but rather a positive endeavour because it is aimed at increasing our
understanding of mental workload as a construct applied within Education, Teaching
and Learning for evaluating the efficiency of various instructional approaches.
6 Conclusions
The research conducted in this paper was an attempt to investigate the reliability, va-
lidity and sensitivity of three well known self-reporting mental workload (MWL) mea-
sures, mainly used within Ergonomics, within third-level education. A primary research
study has been designed and executed to gather self-reported data by different cohort
of students of a post-graduate module in Computer Science. In details, four different
topics of a module on ‘research design and proposal writing’ were repeatedly delivered
using three different instructional approaches over a period of 3 years. The first design
approach included the delivery of theoretical material by employing a traditional direct
instruction method employing slides projected to a white-board that included textual
and pictorial information. The second approach included the delivery of the same theo-
retical material through multimedia videos built by employing a set of principles from
Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning [38]. The third design approach included the
extension of the second approach with a collaborative group activity for students in-
spired by the Community of Inquiry paradigm [21]. Evidence strongly suggests how
the three MWL measures are reliable when applied in a typical third-level classroom.
Results demonstrated their moderate validity, in line with the validity achieved in other
empirical experiments within Ergonomics. On the contrary, their sensitivity was very
low in discriminating the mental workload scores of the three different instructional
design conditions. However, given the high reliability and modest validity of the three
MWL measures, the achieved sensitivity might be reasonably attributed to the minimal
impact of the way the three instructional design conditions were designed.
Future work will include the replication of this primary research across other in-
structional design conditions, topics and third-level modules as well as the development
of a hybrid scale that takes into account the strengths and limitations of the three mental
workload assessment instruments adopted in this research.
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Appendix
Table 12: The Rating Scale Mental Effort
Please indicate, by marking the horizontal axis below, how much effort it took for you to execute
the task you have just completed.
0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 110 120 130 140 150
Absolutely no effort
Almost no effort
A little effort
Some effort
Rather much effort
Considerable effort
Great effort
Very great Effort
Extreme effort
Table 13: The NASA Task Load Index (NASA-TLX)
Label Question
NT1
How much mental and perceptual activity was required (e.g. thinking, deciding, calcu-
lating, remembering, looking, searching, etc.)? Was the task easy or demanding, simple
or complex, exacting or forgiving?
NT2
How much physical activity was required (e.g. pushing, pulling, turning, controlling,
activating, etc.)? Was the task easy or demanding, slow or brisk, slack or strenuous,
restful or laborious?
NT3
How much time pressure did you feel due to the rate or pace at which the tasks or task
elements occurred? Was the pace slow and leisurely or rapid and frantic?
NT4
How hard did you have to work (mentally & physically) to accomplish your level of
performance?
NT5
How successful do you think you were in accomplishing the goals, of the task set by the
experimenter (or yourself)? How satisfied were you with your performance in accom-
plishing these goals?
NT6
How insecure, discouraged, irritated, stressed and annoyed versus secure, gratified, con-
tent, relaxed and complacent did you feel during the task?
Table 14: The Workload Profile (WP)
Label Question
W P1
How much attention was required for activities like remembering, problem-solving,
decision-making, perceiving (detecting, recognising, identifying objects)?
W P2
How much attention was required for selecting the proper response channel (manual -
keyboard/mouse, or speech - voice) and its execution?
W P3
How much attention was required for spatial processing (spatially pay attention
around)?
W P4
How much attention was required for verbal material (eg. reading, processing linguistic
material, listening to verbal conversations)?
W P5
How much attention was required for executing the task based on the information visu-
ally received (eyes)?
W P6
How much attention was required for executing the task based on the information audi-
torily received?
W P7
How much attention was required for manually respond to the task (eg. key-
board/mouse)?
W P8
How much attention was required for producing the speech response (eg. engaging in a
conversation, talking, answering questions)?
Table 15: Design of the instructional condition 2 using the principles of Cognitive The-
ory of Multimedia Learning and its differences with condition 1 grouped by load type
Principle Load type Design condition 1 Design condition 2
coherence extraneous any extraneous material was kept to minimum.
signaling extraneous cues, in the form of relevant key-
words, with a larger font size
cues (relevant keywords), popped-in in the video to
emphasise the organisation of essential material.
redundancy extraneous graphical aids and use of narra-
tives
most of text was removed, offloading one channel
(eyes); graphical aids and the use of narratives.
spatial
contiguity
extraneous corresponding words and pictures were placed beside each other and not in
different slides or screens.
temporal
contiguity
extraneous corresponding words and pic-
tures were presented at the same
time
corresponding words (verbally transmitted) and pic-
tures were presented at the same time.
segmenting intrinsic the instructional material was
presented in a single unit
the instructional material is presented in segments,
separated by video transitions.
pre-training intrinsic no pre-training was offered to students.
modality intrinsic printed text is kept in the slides
and verbally explained
printed text is removed, offloading one channel
(eyes) and verbally explained (ears.)
multimedia germane words and pictures.
personalisation germane words are presented using a conversational style and not a formal style
voice germane the words are spoken by the lecturer and not by an artificial machine voice.
image germane no video was used, thus no
speaker’s image was available
the lecturer’s image was most of the time kept in
the video, sometimes using the full space available
or using half-space, with the second half used for
important pieces of text/pictures. Other times, the
image was removed and important sentences were
textually presented full screen.
Table 16: Dialogical activity set for the third design condition inspired by the Commu-
nity Inquiry paradigm
Which are the most important concepts explained during the lesson?
Through a dialogue with the members of your team, talk about these concepts,
try to define them and try to eliminate misunderstandings
Table 17: Question and scale designed for investigating the face validity of the mental
workload assessment measures
How much mental workload the teaching session imposed on you?
underload optimal load overload
extreme
underload
extreme
overload
Fig. 7: Density plots of the distributions of the mental workload scores by topic (T1-T4)
and design condition (DC1-3) for the NASA Task Load Index
Fig. 8: Density plots of the distributions of the mental workload scores by topic (T1-T4)
and design condition (DC1-3) for the WorkloadProfile
Fig. 9: Density plots of the distributions of the mental workload scores by topic (T1-T4)
and design condition (DC1-3) for the Rating Scale Mental Effort
... The main aim of this study was to examine the validity of using physiological techniques to measure cognitive load by examining construct validity (see Gravetter and Forzano, 2018) and sensitivity (see Longo and Orru, 2018). More specifically to investigate the ability of physiological measures to detect differences in intrinsic cognitive load caused by tasks of varying complexity. ...
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... Although this approach is extremely simple from a data acquisition perspective, as they are nonintrusive, some believe these ratings lack structure and provide limited or sparse information at best for diagnostics purposes (Hart and Wickens, 1990). However, others have demonstrated that they may have good diagnosticity for task demands (Tsang and Velazquez, 1996;Rubio et al., 2004;Longo and Orru, 2019). Uni-dimensional scales represent the concept of workload as one continuum, and examples include the Rating Scale Mental Effort (Zijlstra, 1993) and the Instantaneous Self-Assessment Workload (Tattersall and Foord, 1996). ...
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... • replication of the experiment conducted in this research with additional public available datasets, to further validate the contribution to knowledge. • evaluation of human tasks different than those employed in this research, as for instance those conducted in the automobile industry (Di Flumeri et al., 2018), in the context of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) (Longo, 2012) and in education (Longo, 2018b;Longo and Orru, 2018). • use of multi-channel EEG data collected from a larger pool of electrodes, and thus formation and evaluation of additional mental workload indexes built with different clusters of electrodes for the alpha and theta bands. ...
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... Future work are needed to further validate the parabolic model of instructional efficiency. This includes the replication of the experiment conducted in this study over additional instructional designs, and a further assessment of the efficiency scores generated by the parabolic model across a larger set of evaluation criteria [23,26], such as for example sensitivity, reliability, predicting validity. ...
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Instructional efficiency within education is a measurable concept and models have been proposed to assess it. The main assumption behind these models is that efficiency is the capacity to achieve established goals at the minimal expense of resources. This article challenges this assumption by contributing to the body of Knowledge with a novel model that is grounded on ideal mental workload and performance, namely the parabolic model of instructional efficiency. A comparative empirical investigation has been constructed to demonstrate the potential of this model for instructional design evaluation. Evidence demonstrated that this model achieved a good concurrent validity with the well-known likelihood model of instructional efficiency, treated as baseline, but a better discriminant validity for the evaluation of the training and learning phases. Additionally, the inferences produced by this novel model have led to a superior information gain when compared to the baseline.
... Future work are needed to further validate the parabolic model of instructional efficiency. This includes the replication of the experiment conducted in this study over additional instructional designs, and a further assessment of the efficiency scores generated by the parabolic model across a larger set of evaluation criteria [23,26], such as for example sensitivity, reliability, predicting validity. ...
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Instructional efficiency within education is a measurable concept and models have been proposed to assess it. The main assumption behind these models is that efficiency is the capacity to achieve established goals at the minimal expense of resources. This article challenges this assumption by contributing to the body of Knowledge with a novel model that is grounded on ideal mental workload and performance, namely the parabolic model of instructional efficiency. A comparative empirical investigation has been constructed to demonstrate the potential of this model for instructional design evaluation. Evidence demonstrated that this model achieved a good concurrent validity with the well-known likelihood model of instructional efficiency, treated as baseline, but a better discriminant validity for the evaluation of the training and learning phases. Additionally, the inferences produced by this novel model have led to a superior information gain when compared to the baseline.
... Mental Workload can be defined as 'the volume of cognitive work necessary for an individual to accomplish a task over time' [18,19]. It is not 'an elementary property, rather it emerges from the interaction between the requirements of a task, the circumstances under which it is performed and the skills, behaviors and perceptions of the operator' [20][21][22]. However, these are only practical definitions, as many other factors influence mental workload [23][24][25][26]. ...
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Mental workload is a design concept borrowed from Ergonomics with a significant adoption in the aviation and automobile industries. Nowadays, the consideration of this construct is also taking place in many modern clinical working environments for designing interacting and complex systems that impose ever greater cognitive demand on operators and less physical load. Measuring mental workload is essential for improving the interaction human-system, enhancing performance , reducing the operator's error and increasing safety. However, defining, measuring, assessing mental workload and understanding how this impinges on performance are still open problems. This secondary research is firstly aimed at introducing the construct of mental workload, its foundations, measurements techniques as well as applications in medicine. It then discusses open problems for applied research and eventually, it concludes with a list of challenges for scholars and practitioners. The goal is to provide the reader with a picture of the state of the science of mental workload in medicine and clinical domains with an eye towards future research.
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This paper reviews 12 research-based principles for how to design computer-based multimedia instructional materials to promote academic learning, starting with the multimedia principle (yielding a median effect size of d = 1.67 based on five experimental comparisons), which holds that people learn better from computer-based instruction containing words and graphics rather than words alone. Principles aimed at reducing extraneous processing (i.e., cognitive processing that is unrelated to the instructional objective) include coherence (d = 0.70), signalling (d = 0.46), redundancy (d = 0.87), spatial contiguity (d = 0.79) and temporal contiguity (d = 1.30). Principles for managing essential processing (i.e., mentally representing the essential material) include segmenting (d = 0.70), pre-training (d = 0.46) and modality (d = 0.72). Principles for fostering generative processing (i.e., cognitive processing aimed at making sense of the material) include personalization (d = 0.79), voice (d = 0.74) and embodiment (d = 0.36). Some principles have boundary conditions, such as being stronger for low- rather than high-knowledge learners.