Mental Rehearsal

Mental rehearsal is the intentional mental practice of a procedure within imagination. The mental rehearsal effect (also termed the imagination effect) occurs when mentally rehearsing procedural information presented in a worked example results in greater learning than studying the worked example.

As learners acquire schemas they increasingly have the ability to recall knowledge and perform procedures.

Once suitable schemas have been acquired to enable performance of a procedure then mental rehearsal of those procedures produces correct cognitive performance, thus promoting automation through imaginary practice.

The dynamics are similar in function to drill and practice, except that no physical performance is produced.


Procedural worked examples will be presented to learners with a direction to “study the worked example, and when you are sure that you understand it, turn away and try to imagine doing it”.

Note that this statement begins with a conventional instruction to study for understanding, and to ‘imagine’ doing it only once understanding has been achieved.  Learners who have not sufficiently acquired suitable schemas will not have the knowledge base required to correctly imagine performance of the procedure and should not attempt to do so.

Mental rehearsal can be applied for low order schemas and high order schemas.

Instructional Design: 

Worked examples demonstrate procedures.  These may be for cognitively based tasks as encountered in academic areas, or physical tasks as encountered in skilled trade areas.

Learners are to be explicitly informed that they should study the example to ensure that they understand it.  Learners are to be further directed that once understanding is achieved, then they should engage in mental practice of the procedure.

Learners who have not attained understanding should not attempt mental rehearsal, but undertake further activities based around study for understanding.

Study for understanding promotes the acquisition of schemas.  Mental rehearsal promotes automation of those schemas, but is reliant upon those schemas being in place.

Example 1: Algebra problem solving

After being presented a worked example for an algebra problem, learners are instructed to imagine solving it.


Example 2: Piano Recital

After learning to play a piece of music on the piano, learners are instructed to imagine playing the piece.


Example 3: Changing a car tyre

After being shown how to change a car tyre, learners are instructed to imagine changing the tyre.


Example 4: Actors Lines for a Play

After being presented the dialogue for a part in a play, learners are instructed to imagine performing them.


Example 5: Foreign Language Vocabulary

After being presented the vocabulary for a range of basic greetings in Bahasa Indonesian, learners are instructed to imagine purchasing them from the market.



Cooper G; Tindall-Ford S; Chandler P; Sweller J, 2001, 'Learning by imagining', Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 68 - 82,

Ginns P; Chandler P; Sweller J, 2003, 'When imagining information is effective', Contemporary Educational Psychology, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 229 - 251,

Leahy W; Sweller J, 2004, 'Cognitive load and the imagination effect', Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol. 18, no. 7, pp. 857 - 875,

Leahy W; Sweller J, 2008, 'The imagination effect increases with an increased intrinsic cognitive load',Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 273 - 283,

Tindall-Ford S; Sweller J, 2006, 'Altering the modality of instructions to facilitate imagination: Interactions between the modality and imagination effects', Instructional Science, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 343 - 365,