While many university students are just focussed on getting through their exams, potential employers are interested in graduates would can retain the vital information they’ve learned from their degree well into their professional lives.

But research by Dr Seedwell Sithole, senior lecturer in Accounting at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, shows that traditional teaching methods at universities and schools often do not take into account the limitations of human memory.

His studies of human cognition are now revealing how lecturers could be much more effective in getting new information to ‘stick’ in students’ long-term memories.

“If we are just delivering content that’s very heavy or difficult for the students, they may not be able to get that into their long-term memories,” Dr Sithole explains.

Information has to be structured so that it can be kept in the short-term memory and then transferred to long-term memory.

In one simple test, Dr Sithole compared the information retention of two groups of Accounting students: one group received a diagram with the explanatory text on a separate page, and the other received the same diagram, but with the text incorporated into it.

The students who were given the diagram with embedded text not only retained the information much better, but reported a much lower ‘cognition load’ – they found answering questions about the diagram far easier than the other group.

In another research project, Dr Sithole looked at the cognition load of students being shown complex PowerPoint slides with lots of text during a lecture.

“The way we process information is different if we’re looking at visuals with lots of text and hearing audio at the same time,” he said.

“It overloads our short-term memory.”

“If you have so much information on a PowerPoint slide that you can’t actually read all of it, it’s putting a heavy load on you, because you’re listening and trying to read what’s on the slide.

Our recommendation from the research is that you put as little as possible on the PowerPoint slide.

 Dr Sithole has also researched the merit of a common theory among lecturers – that it’s better to make students figure something out on their own, rather than giving them examples of how to solve a problem.

“Students who were given examples of how to solve a problem actually performed better than those who were just given problems to solve,” he said.

Most lecturers would argue that the students learn more if you don’t give them examples, but in actuality, it’s the opposite.

“When the students had to search for the information themselves, it put a heavy cognitive load on the brain, and they couldn’t put that information into their long-term memory.”

Dr Sithole recently published a book explaining his research with co-author Professor Indra Abeysekera. Accounting Education: A Cognitive Load Theory Perspective (Routledge, 2017) has been receiving interest from universities around the world.

“The theory comes from cognitive psychology, but I’m using it in an accounting area on different instructional materials,” said Dr Sithole.

“I want to know: how best can we design the teaching materials so that students love, and are interested in, accounting?”

He adds that nearly all the students he talks to about his research are keen to get involved.

“Students are interested because they want to enhance their learning experience,” he said.

“More than 90 per cent of the students have chosen to participate, because they see the value of what we are researching.”

 Find out about studying Business and Economics at the University of Tasmania here.

About Dr Seedwell T.M. Sithole

Dr Seedwell has particular interests and expertise in the areas of accounting education, financial reporting and regulation, not for profit accounting, management accounting, and public sector accounting. His recent research focus is on investigating how students can deal with cognitive overload when learning accounting. This began with his PhD, which examined how students can self-manage cognitive load in accounting, and has evolved and expanded to explore how both academics and learners use cognitive load theory compliant instructional materials to support learning.

View Dr Seedwell T.M. Sithole's full researcher profile