First, I love this introductory paragraph. Scroll bar!
Influential theories of human development, perception and action all emphasize the crucial role of an individual’s control over what he or she does, how and when1, 2, 3, 4. Successful ‘active learning’ educational practices5 emphasize the importance of the individual’s control over learning. We see the positive effects of such control in everyday life, when we experience the difficulty of extracting information from a website when someone else is controlling the scrollbar, when it is difficult to learn a route as a car passenger rather than the driver, and so on.
Second, the design is pretty neat:
In our studies, adult humans studied arrays of common objects arranged on a grid, viewing one object at a time through a small moving window (Fig. 1a). Each subject participated in two viewing conditions, one with self-initiated active control of window position using a computer mouse or joystick and the other a passive condition. The self-controlled, active movements of one subject were recorded and played back as the passive condition for the next subject (Fig. 1b), so that the visual information displayed during the active condition for subject n was the same as that displayed during the passive condition for subject n + 1. Visual stimulation for active versus passive learning was therefore matched through the combination of ‘yoking’ the window movements in the two viewing conditions across pairs of subjects and the precise control of viewing location provided by the window. In this way, subjects viewed the same visual information in the same order for the same durations in both conditions; any differences in performance outcome could therefore be attributed to the effects of active control (relative to passive viewing).
Did you get that? The difference between the active and the passive condition is that in the active one the subject controls essentially the scrolling over the grid, and the in passive one she just watches it. But the brilliant bit is the passive condition gets played the recorded movements of the last active session. They see things in exactly the same sequence, they just aren’t controlling it.
What they find is that controlling the presentation in even this minor way has significant benefits for recall. It’s too odd a study in some ways to draw broad conclusions. But it’s worth wondering about whether such issues might factor into the efficacy of something like self-advancing versus user-paced slides. etc. And it reinforces for me that what feels like the most effective presentation may not always be the most effective presentation. My guess is the students in the control condition felt more “taught” but of course they recalled less.