What Is the Capacity Theory?

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  • Written By: Karize Uy
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 02 October 2019
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In a nutshell, the “capacity theory” or “capacity model” says that a student can effectively learn when a lesson is presented according to his capacity to remember and understand subject matters. It is a fairly recent theory that looks into how non-conventional educational tools such as television and computer games can help students learn and gain knowledge. The theory is often credited to Shalom Fisch, who presented a paper in 1999 entitled, “A Capacity Model of Children’s Comprehension of Educational Content on Television.”

In the recent decades, watching television has become a part of a person’s daily habits, and the educational system started to incorporate television programs as a way to teach students. Numerous studies may have reported much success in using the media as an educational tool, but only few have really investigated the learning process behind watching educational programs. This prompted Fisch to conduct his own study and pinpoint which elements are significant in affecting a child’s capacity to learn. The capacity theory discusses three important elements in its effort to explore the learning process: processing of narrative, processing of educational content, and the “distance.”


In the first component, processing of narrative content, Fisch defines the term “narrative” as the story a program introduces to its viewers, with elements such as the characters, the location, and the sequential events within the story. Capacity theory states that when the students can relate to the narrative, learning is more effective. This means that television programs should take into consideration not only the educational background, but also the social and cultural context of their target students. For example, an educational show that caters to British children can employ soccer, a favorite sport in the UK, in teaching lessons about body parts. Use of appropriate words is also very important in conveying the lessons in terms students can understand.

The term “educational content” in the second element of the capacity theory refers to the actual concept of the lesson that the show wants students to learn. In the example beforehand, the narrative content would be the story about soccer, but the educational content would, in fact, be the different parts of the body. In this component, the capacity model suggests that television shows take into consideration the student’s “prior knowledge” when introducing a new lesson. If the student has this so-called prior knowledge, then processing the present educational content would be easier. For example, in teaching the multiplication table, a student should have prior knowledge of adding numbers.

The third element of the capacity theory, “distance,” pertains to the relationship between the narrative and education contents. The theory asserts that the smaller the distance between both contents, the greater the student’s ability to learn and remember the lesson. This means that the channel, the narrative content, should integrate the lesson, the educational content, in an effective manner. For example, an educational show that portrays a character who is looking for a pirate treasure can teach lessons in mathematics by presenting the clues as problems in addition, division, and square roots. Studies have shown that students learn better when there is a venue in which they can apply their lessons.


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