Symbol Systems (G. Salomon)


The symbol systems theory developed by Salomon is intended to explain the effects of media on learning. Salomon (1977) states: "To summarize, the symbol systems of media affect the acquisition of knowledge in a number of ways. First, they highlight differ ent aspects of content. Second, they vary with respect to ease of recoding. Third, specific coding elements can save the learner from difficult mental elaborations by overtly supplanting or short-circuiting specific elaboration. Fourth, symbol systems dif fer with respect to how much processing they demand or allow. Fifth, symbol systems differ with respect to the kinds of mental processes they call on for recoding and elaboration. Thus, symbol systems partly determine who will acquire how much knowledge f rom what kinds of messages." (p226-227)

According to Salomon, each medium is capable of conveying content via certain inherent symbol systems. For example, Salomon suggests that television requires less mental processing than reading and that the meanings secured from viewing television tend to be less elaborate than those secured from reading (i.e., different levels of processing are involved). However, the meaning extracted from a given medium depends upon the learner. Thus, a person may acquire information about a subject they are familar wi th equally well from different media but be significantly influenced by different media for novel information.

Salomon (1981) focuses on the reciprocal nature of instructional communications, the instructional setting, and the learner. Salomon argues that schema play a major role in determining how messages are perceived -- in terms of creating an anticipatory bi as that influences what information is selected and how it is interpreted. Furthermore, media create new schema which affect subsequent cognitive processing.

Symbol systems theory is closely related to aptitude-treatment interaction research and Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.


Salomon's theory is supported primarily by research conducted with film and television (especially "Sesame Street"). More recent work has extended the framework to computers (e.g., Salomon, Perkins & Globerson, 1991).


One of the critical concepts of Salomon's theory is that the effectiveness of a medium depends upon its match with the learner, the context and the task. Salomon (1977; p 112) explains: "Learning can be facilitated to the extent that the activated skills are relevant to the demands of the learning task. Thus, when the task calls for some act of analytic comparison and the coded message activates imagery instead, the learning may be debilitated. For effective instructional communication, a match needs to b e established between the cognitive demands of a learning task, the skills that are required by the codes of the message, and the learner's level of mastery of these skills."


1. The symbolic coding elements of particular media require different mental transformations and hence affect the mastery of specific skills.

2. The level of knowledge and skill that an individual possesses will affect the impact of specific media sequences.

3. The nature of the learning/information processing tasks can affect the impact of specific media sequences.

4. The social context of media presentations can influence what message is perceived.

5. There is a reciprocal relationship between media and learner; each can influence the other.


Salomon, G. (1979). Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Salomon, G. (1981). Communication and Education. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Salomon, G., Perkins, D., & Globerson, T. (1991). Partners in cognition: Extending human intelligence with intelligent technologies. Educational Reseacher, 20(4), 2-9.