In an earlier post I took a jab at common sense. Who can possibly be against common sense? Well, as I pointed out, common sense has its limits. Sitting in my office looking out the window and using my commons sense, it is obvious to me that the world is flat and the sun rotates around the earth.
Unfortunately much instructional wisdom derives from (incorrect) common sense. One such belief is that instruction needs to be “pleasing” to the student: Students will learn better if they are made to feel emotionally positive by the instruction. This actually has a name. It’s called the Arousal Principle. It makes (common) sense.
Adding incidental music to a course, particularly during animations, is a commonly deployed instructional strategy. It certainly doesn’t seem like it would do any harm, and it is pleasing. But, in a research study (here) Moreno and Mayer found to the contrary. They tested the use of incidental music and found that adding incidental music reduced the transfer of learning by a substantial amount (median effect size 1.11). Their explanation for this is based on what they call the Coherence Principle – people learn better when extraneous stimuli are excluded, not included.
If you think about it, this is consistent with cognitive load theory. Our goal as instructional designers is to reduce cognitive load, not add to it. Incidental music adds to the load on the learner’s working memory so it should be avoided..