Representational Learning


Contributor: Shaaron Ainsworth

Learning in formal and informal education is increasingly representationally mediated as we constantly invent new forms of representations whose form and interactive possibilities are partly due to technological development. And whilst text still continues to predominate, it is rarely found alone. For example, textbooks have increasing numbers of photographs, diagrams and illustrations and as books move away from print media and onto tablets, these photographs are becoming movies and diagrams increasingly presented as animations. Moreover, professional activities are understood to be representationally focused. Expertise is the ability to select and construct representations appropriate for the situation and the community of practice. Learning sciences approach to representational learning integrate three distinct traditions. Firstly, the cognitive accounts of instructional psychology whose evidence is strongly experimental methods. Second, ethnographic and observational studies of representation use in the hands of experts, often based on socio-cultural theories. Third, studying the affordances of emerging technology and how it supports the display and increasingly the construction of new representational forms. This body of mature is now sufficiently mature to suggest that well-designed (combinations of) representations display, or are constructed by learners, to make their key (task relevant) aspects more accessible to learners for mutually beneficial cognitive, social and affective processes. It also acknowledges that representational learning is hard work. Although children learn how to use and make representations early in life and bring with them a lot of relevant experience and understanding to the classroom, learning how to take advantage of specific representational forms, how to argue and explain them their benefit, construct them and understand their relations to other representations is a significant undertaking whose complex demands can be under-estimated. Thus, more is still need to be done to increase our understanding of how to help people learn with representations.

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Syllabi and Slides

Multi-Representational Learning slide by Shaaron Ainsworth

Video Resources

Listen to the Representational Learning webinar


Basic Reading:
  • Ainsworth, S. (2014). The multiple representations principle in multimedia learning. In R. Mayers (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press.
Additional Reading:
  • Hegarty, M. (2011). The Cognitive Science of Visual-Spatial Displays: Implications for Design. Topics in Cognitive Science, 3(3), 446-474. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2011.01150.x
  • Kozma, R. (2003). Material and Social Affordances of Multiple Representations for Science Understanding. Learning and Instruction, 13(2), 205-226.
  • Tversky, B. (2011). Visualizing Thought. Topics in Cognitive Science, 3(3), 499-535. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2010.01113.x

Learning Scientists Who Have Researched This Topic

  • Shaaron Ainsworth
  • Victor Lee
  • Roy Pea
  • Martina Rau
  • Peter Reimann
  • Mike Stieff
  • Dan Suthers