Take any e-Lesson — show it to five people and
ask them what they think. My bet is you will get five different opinions about the quality of the courseware. But, wait! What if the five reviewers are educational “experts” — specialists with advanced degreesin training and education? Now you might expect agreater consensus. Based on my experience over thepast three years reviewing courses with experts, I predict a little more agreement; but it’s not likely to be anything close to a consensus.
Unlike classroom training, e-Learning is very visible. While much of thevclassroom experience is packaged in the instructor, and in fact varies from class to class, you can easily see and hear all elements of e-Learning. Everything from screen color to content accuracy to the types of practices is readily available for scrutiny. I believe that this high visibility will prove to be a good thing. With this much more accessible instructional environment, we will be able to more readily identify effective and ineffective training. But to do so, we have to move beyond a reliance on end-user (or even expert) opinions. After a year of work on a commission tasked to identify the qualities of effective e-Learning, and hearing a great deal of (often contradictory) views, I decided I needed fewer opinions and more data.
THIS WEEK: Design Techniques
The eLearning Guild’s
Practical Applications of Technology for Learning
LEARNING SOLUTIONS | September 10, 2002 2
include synchronous or asynchronous communication options. For example, the screen in Figure 1 on page 3 is part of a Web-delivered course designed to teach the use of software called Dreamweaver to create Web pages. The main content is the steps needed to perform this particular task with Dreamweaver. The instructional methods include a demonstration of how to perform the steps along with an opportunity to practice and get feedback on your accuracy. There is a distinction among three important elements of an e-Lesson: the instructional methods, the instructional media, and media elements. In spite of optimistic projections of the positive impact of technology on learning, the reality has not lived up to expectations. From film to the Internet, each new wave of technology has stimulated prospects of revolutions in learning. But research comparing learning from one medium such as the classroom with another medium suchas the Internet generally fails to demonstrate significant advantages for any particular technology. These repeated failures lead us to abandon a technology-centered
approach to learning in favor of a learner-centered approach. Having participated in many poor training sessions in the classroom and on the computer, we recognize that it’s not the medium that causeslearning. Rather it is the design of the lesson itself and Learning Solutions e-Magazine™ is designed to serve as a catalyst for innovation and as a vehicle for the dissemination of new and practical strategies, techniques, and best practices for e-Learning design, development and management professionals. It is not intended to be THE definitive authority ... rather, it is intended to be a medium through which e-Learning professionals can share their knowledge, expertise, and experience. As in any profession, there are many different ways to accomplish a specific objective. Learning Solutions will share many different perspectives and does not position any one as “the right way,” but rather we position each article as “one of the right ways” for accomplishing an objective. We assume that readers will evaluate the merits of each article and use the ideas they contain in a manner appropriate for their specific situation. The articles in Learning Solutions are all written by people who are actively engaged in this profession — not by journalists or freelance writers. Submissions are always welcome, as are suggestions for future topics. To learn more about how to submit articles and/or ideas, please visit our Web site at www.eLearningGuild.com. Publisher David Holcombe Editorial Director Heidi Fisk Editor Bill Brandon Copy Editor Charles Holcombe Design Director Nancy Marland Wolinski The eLearning Guild™ Advisory Board Ruth Clark, Lance Dublin, Conrad Gottfredson, Bill Horton, Bob Mosher, Eric Parks, Brenda Pfaus, Marc Rosenberg, Allison Rossett Copyright 2002 to 2007. Learning Solutions e-Magazine™ (formerly The eLearning Developers’ Journal™). Compilation copyright by The eLearning Guild. All rights reserved. Please contact The eLearning Guild for reprint permission. Learning Solutions e-Magazine™ is published weeklyfor members of The eLearning Guild, 375 E Street, Suite 200, Santa Rosa, CA 95404. Phone: +1.707.566.8990. www.eLearningGuild.com Decisions about e-Learning courseware must begin with an understanding of how the mind works during learning and of what research data tell us about what factors lead to learning. This is where decisions must begin. Naturally factors other than psychological effectiveness
come into play in your multimedia learning decisions. For example, instructional strategies will be shaped by parameters of the technology like bandwidth and hardware, and by environmental factors
such as budget, time, and organizational culture.
What is e-Learning?
Since the term e-Learning is used inconsistently, let’s start with a basic definition. For the purposes of this discussion, e-Learning is content and instructional methods delivered on a computer (whether on CDROM, the Internet, or an intranet), and designed to build knowledge and skills related to individual or organizational goals. This definition addresses: The what: training delivered in digital form, The how: content and instructional methods to help learn the content, and The why: to improve organizational performance by building job-relevant knowledge and skills in workers. In this article, the main focus and examples are drawn from business self-study courseware that may
Decisions about e-Learning courseware must begin with an understanding of how the mind works during learning and of what research data tell us about what factors lead to learning.
the best use of instructional methods that make the difference. A learner-centered approach suggests that we design lessons that accommodate human learning processes regardless of the media involved. Instructional methods are the techniques used to help learners process new information in ways that lead to learning. Instructional methods include the use of techniques such as examples, practice exercises, simulations, and analogies. Instructional media are the delivery agents that contain
the content and the instructional methods including computers, workbooks, and even instructors. Not all media can carry all instructional methods with equal effectiveness. For each new technology that appears on the scene, we typically start by treating it like older media with which we are familiar. For example, much early Web-based training looked a lot like books — mostly using text on a screen to communicate content. As the technology behind a given medium matures, we get better at exploiting the features unique to that medium for learning. A third component of multimedia learning is the media elements. The media elements refer to the text, graphics, and audio used to present content and instructional
methods. For example in the Dreamweaver screen shown in Figure 1, the content is the steps needed to perform the particular task which is the focus of this lesson. The instructional methods include a demonstration and simulation practice with feedback. The media elements include a graphic of the screen and (during the demonstration) audio narration that explains the steps seen in the animation.
For the past ten years, Richard Mayer and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara have conducted a series of controlled experiments on how to best use audio, text, and graphics to optimize learning in multimedia. Six media element principles can be defined based on Mayer’s work. What follows is a summary of these principles along with supporting examples, psychological rationale, and research. Use this information as guidelines regarding the benefits of graphics, the placement of text and graphics on the screen, and the best way to present words that
describe graphics among others.
The multimedia principle: Adding graphics to words can improve learning.
By graphics we refer to a variety of illustrations including still graphics such as line drawings, charts, and photographs and motion graphics such as animation and video. Research has shown that graphics can improve learning. The trick is to use illustrations that are congruent with the instructional message. Images added for entertainment or dramatic value not
LEARNING SOLUTIONS | September 10, 2002 3
only don’t improve learning but they can actually depress
learning (see the coherence principle below).
Mayer compared learning about various mechanical
and scientific processes including how a bicycle
pump works and how lightning forms, from lessons
that used words alone or used words and pictures
(including still graphics and animations). In most
cases he found much improved understanding when
pictures were included. In fact, he found an average
gain of 89% on transfer tests from learners who studied
lessons with text and graphics compared to learners
whose lessons were limited to text alone. Therefore
we have empirical support that should discourage
the use of screens and screens of text as an
effective learning environment. However not all pictures
are equally effective. We will need more principles
to see how to best make use of visuals to promote
Learning occurs by the encoding of new information
in permanent memory called long-term memory.
According to a theory called Dual Encoding, content
communicated with text and graphics sends two
codes — a verbal code and a visual code. Having two
opportunities for encoding into long-term memory
Practice exercise from an
e-Lesson on Dreamweaver.
With permission from
are the delivery
agents that contain
the content and the
and even instructors.
Not all media can
carry all instructional
methods with equal
LEARNING SOLUTIONS | September 10, 2002 4
While graphics can boost learning, it will be important
to select the kind of graphic that is congruent
with the text and with the learning goal. As I’ll discuss
below, graphics that are irrelevant or gratuitous actually
depress learning. Consider selecting your graphics
based on the type of content you are teaching.
Table 1 summarizes some graphics that work well to
illustrate five key content types: facts, concepts, processes,
procedures, and principles. Processes for
example, are effectively illustrated by animations or
by still graphics that show change through arrows.
Figure 2 on page 5 shows an effective illustration of
a process in e-Learning.
The contiguity principle: placing text
near graphics improves learning.
Contiguity refers to the alignment of graphics and
text on the screen. Often in e-Learning when a scrolling
screen is used, the words are placed at the top
and the illustration is placed under the words so that
when you see the text you can’t see the graphic and
vice versa. This is a common violation of the contiguity
principle that states that graphics and text related to
the graphics should be placed close to each other on
Mayer compared learning about the science topics
described above in versions where text was placed
separate from the visuals with versions where text
was integrated on the screen near the visuals. The
visuals and text were identical in both versions. He
found that the integrated versions were more effective.
In five out of five studies, learning from screens
that integrated words near the visuals yielded an average
improvement of 68%.
Learning occurs in humans by way of working memory
which is the active part of our memory system.
You have probably heard of “seven plus or minus two.”
This refers to the severe limits placed on working memory.
Working memory is not very efficient, and can
only hold seven (plus or minus two) facts or items at a
Since working memory capacity is needed for
learning to occur, when working memory becomes
overloaded, learning is depressed. If words and the
visuals they describe are separate from each other,
the learner needs to expend extra cognitive resources
to integrate them. In contrast, in materials in which the
words and graphics are placed contiguously, the integration
is done for the learner. Therefore the learner is
While graphics can
boost learning, it will
be important to select
the kind of graphic
that is congruent
with the text and with
the learning goal.
Content Type Graphic Support Example
Realistic illustrations of specific
forms, screens, equipment
Realistic illustrations of multiple
examples of the concept
Animated diagrams illustrating
stages of process
Video or animated demonstrations
of near-transfer task being performed
Video or diagrams of far-transfer
tasks being performed
Illustration of software screen
Pictures of good Web pages to
illustrate concept of what is a good
Activities in a computer network
Animation of how to use a software
Video of effective sales closing
TABLE 1: Graphics to support content types
LEARNING SOLUTIONS | September 10, 2002 5
free to spend those scarce cognitive resources on
As mentioned above, scrolling screens sometimes
violate the contiguity principle by separating text and
related visuals. But it is not the scrolling screen itself
which is to blame. One way to use scrolling screens
effectively is to embed smaller graphics on the screen
with related text close by. For example, a screen from
my online design course is shown in Figure 3. You
can see that the visual has been reduced and placed
on the screen near the text.
The modality principle: explaining
graphics with audio improves learning.
If you have the technical capabilities to use other
modalities like audio, it can substantially improve
learning outcomes. This is especially true of audio narration
of an animation or a complex visual in a topic
that is relatively complex and unfamiliar to the learner.
Mayer compared learning from two e-Learning versions
that explained graphics with exactly the same
words — only the modality was changed. Thus he
compared learning from versions that explained animations
with words in text with versions that explained
animations with words in audio. In all comparisons,
the narrated versions yielded better learning with an
average improvement of 80%.
As described under the contiguity principle, working
memory is a limited resource that must be preserved
for learning purposes. Cognitive psychologists
have learned that working memory has two sub-storage
areas — one for visual information and one for
phonetic information. One way to stretch the capacity
of working memory is to utilize both of these storage
areas. Figure 4 on page 6 illustrates how the use of
graphics which enter visual memory and audio which
enters phonetic memory maximize working memory
Audio should be used in situations where overload
is likely. For example, if you are watching an animated
demonstration of maybe five or six steps to use a software
application, you need to focus your visual resources
on the animation. If you have to read text and
at the same time watch the animation, overload is
more likely than when you can hear the animation
This does not mean that text should never be used.
For example, some information in e-Learning, such as
directions to an exercise, needs to be available to the
learner over a longer period of time. Any words that
are needed as reference should be presented in text.
Also, when using audio to explain an animation, a
replay option should be available for learners to hear
the explanation again.
Figure 3 An example of application of the contiguity principle.
e-Learning illustrating a
LEARNING SOLUTIONS | September 10, 2002 6
The redundancy principle: explaining
graphics with audio and redundant
text can hurt learning.
Some e-Lessons provide words in text and in audio
that reads the text. This might seem like a good way
to present information in several formats and thus
improve learning. Controlled research however, indicates
that learning is actually depressed when a
graphic is explained by a combination of text and
narration that reads the text.
In studies conducted by Mayer and by others, researchers
have found that better transfer learning is
realized when graphics are explained by audio alone
rather than by audio and text. Mayer found similar
results in two studies for an average gain of 79%.
There are exceptions to the redundancy principle
as recently reported by Roxana Moreno and Mayer. In
a comparison of a scientific explanation presented
with narration alone and with narration and text, learning
was significantly better in conditions that included
both narration and text.
The researchers conclude that, “An effective technique
to promote broader learning with multimedia
explanations is to use the auditory and visual modalities
simultaneously for verbal information if no other
visual material is presented concurrently.” Therefore
there will be limited situations in which narration of onscreen
text could be helpful to learning such as when
there is no graphic on the screen or when readers
lack good reading skills.
As illustrated in Figure 5, overload of the visual and
auditory components of working memory occurs if an
on-screen graphic is explained by both text (which
enters the visual center) and narration. However if
there is no on-screen visual, then overload would not
result and because dual codes would be provided,
learning would be increased.
In general, it’s advisable to avoid narration of text
when there is a demanding visual illustration on the
screen. This is especially important when working
memory is subject to overload such as during an animation
in which learners have limited control over the
pacing, or during the presentation of complex new
information. In contrast, when there is no graphic
information on the screen, then research to date
would suggest that presenting words in text and auditory
format would benefit learning.
Figure 5 Presenting words in text and audio can overload working memory in presence
The coherence principle: using gratuitous
visuals, text, and sounds can hurt
It’s common knowledge that e-Learning attrition
can be a problem. In well-intended efforts to spice up
e-Learning, some designers use what I call a Las
Vegas approach. By that I mean they add glitz and
games to make the experience more engaging. The
glitz can take a variety of forms such as dramatic
vignettes (in video or text) inserted to add interest,
background music to add appeal, or popular movie
characters or themes to add entertainment value.
As an example, consider a storyboard for a course
on using statistical quality control techniques to improve
quality, shown in Figure 6 on page 7. To add
interest, several stories about the costs of product
recalls were added. But how do these additions affect
In the 1980’s research on details presented in text
Visual and supporting
LEARNING SOLUTIONS | September 10, 2002 7
that were related to a lesson explanation but were
extraneous in nature found them to depress learning.
Such additions were called “seductive details.” In
more recent research, Mayer has found similar negative
effects from seductive details presented either via
text or video. For example, in the lesson on lightning
formation, short descriptions of the vulnerability of
golfers to lightning strikes and the effect of lightning
strikes on airplanes were added to the lesson.
In six of six experiments, learners who studied from
the base lesson showed much greater learning than
those who studied from the enhanced versions. The
average gain was 105%. Similar effects were seen in
a comparison of lessons that included background
music and environmental sounds with base lessons
that did not add extra auditory material.
Finally, a third series of experiments compared an
expanded explanation that used 500 words and several
captioned illustrations with a lesson that used
only the illustrations and their captions. Students who
received the summary version — just the visuals and
their captions — actually achieved 69% more learning.
Mayer did several studies together with S. F. Harp
to determine why seductive details depress learning.
In these experiments they evaluated the hypotheses
that these added materials did their damage by:
1. Distracting learners from key instructional points,
2. Disrupting the learner’s organization of information
into a coherent mental model, or
3. Activating irrelevant prior knowledge.
They created three versions of lessons that included
seductive details but that also added instructional
methods that should compensate for their damaging
effects. Only one of their compensatory treatments
reduced the negative effects of the seductive details.
Seductive details placed at the beginning of a lesson
were more damaging than the same information
placed at the end of the lesson.
Therefore, they concluded that these details activate
inappropriate prior knowledge. Since learning
takes place by the integration of new information into
existing knowledge in long-term memory, stimulating
inappropriate prior knowledge would have a damaging
The coherence principle essentially tells us that
“less is more” when learning is the primary goal. It
suggests that visuals or text that is not essential to
the instructional explanation be avoided. It suggests
that you not add music to instructional segments. It
also suggests that lean text that gets to the point is
better than lengthy elaborated text.
As designers we need to make a distinction between
entertainment and learning. This is not to say
that an effective e-Learning course is not interesting.
Mayer reminds us of prior distinctions between cognitive
interest and emotional interest. Cognitive interest
stems from materials that promote understanding of
the content presented — in other words from materials
that optimize learning. Emotional interest comes from
the addition of extraneous materials which have been
shown to depress learning. Our goal should be to
promote cognitive interest and avoid emotional interest
in situations that require cognitive learning processes.
The personalization principle: Use
conversational tone and pedagogical
agents to increase learning.
A series of interesting experiments summarized by
Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass in their book, The
Media Equation, showed that people responded to
computers following social conventions that apply
when responding to other people. For example,
Reeves and Nass found that when evaluating a computer
program on the same computer that presented
the program, the ratings were higher than if the evaluation
was made on a different computer. People were
unconsciously avoiding giving negative evaluations
directly to the source.
Of course individuals know that the computer is
not a person. However, deeply ingrained conventions
of social interaction tend to exert themselves unconsciously
in human-computer interactions. These find-
A seductive detail from a
quality lesson. From Clark
and Mayer, 2002.
The coherence principle
essentially tells us
that “less is more”
when learning is the
primary goal. It suggests
that visuals or
text that is not essential
to the instructional
explanation be avoided.
It suggests that
you not add music to
It also suggests that
lean text that gets to
the point is better than
LEARNING SOLUTIONS | September 10, 2002 8
ings prompted a series of experiments that show that
learning is better when the learner is socially engaged
in a lesson either via conversational language or by an
informal learning agent.
Based on the work of Reeves and Nass, Mayer
and others have established that learning programs
that engage the learner directly by using first and second
person language yield better learning than the
same programs that use more formal language. Likewise
a number of studies have shown that adding a
learning agent — a character who offers instructional
advice — can also improve learning.
While some computer scientists are working to
make agents very realistic, a series of studies using
Herman the Bug (see Figure 7) as an agent found
1. The appearance of the agent made little difference
— a cartoon or human worked just as well.
2. Learning was better when the agent’s words
were presented in audio rather than in text and in
a conversational style rather than in a formal
style — congruent with the modality and personalization
3. The agent did not even need to be visible on the
screen — the voice alone was sufficient to promote
Learning is based on an engagement of the learner
with the content of the instruction. Even though learners
know that computers are inanimate, the use of
conversational language either directly in the program
or via an agent seems to stimulate very ingrained
unconscious social conventions that lead to deeper
When you are in a conversation with someone you
are expected to listen and respond in a meaningful
way. This requires you to invest attention in what the
person is saying, to process it and to generate a
meaningful response. A similar model seems to apply
when learners see the e-Learning as an engagement
with a social partner — even an inanimate one.
When you write the script for your e-Lessons, use
first and second person constructions, but don’t over
do it. For example, dialog such as, “Hey Dude — Are
you ready for some exciting information on quality
control tools?” is incongruent and more distracting
than helpful. The research on pedagogical agents is
quite new so applications are still a bit tentative.
First, it seems that you don’t need to invest a lot of
effort in the physical representation of the agent. Second,
you need to consider the role of the agent. To
be useful the agent needs to serve an instructionally
valid role — not just appear as an on-screen character.
One example I liked is shown in Figure 8. In this
program designed to teach reading comprehension at
a fourth to sixth grade level, the agent Jim is introduced
and appears throughout the program to show
readers comprehension strategies that have worked
Figure 8 Jim serves as a pedagogical agent. With permission from Plato Learning
Herman the Bug is a
pedagogical agent. From
Clark and Mayer, 2002.
LEARNING SOLUTIONS | September 10, 2002 9
So there you have it. These six media element principles
should give you the basics since all e-Learning
programs must rely on some combination of graphics,
text, and audio to deliver their content. Perhaps now
that you better understand the research that has been
done, the psychological foundations of why the principles
work and have seen some examples of how the
principles are applied you will feel more confident in
using them yourself.
Clark, R.C. and Mayer, R.E. (2002).
E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven
Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of
Multimedia Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Clark, R.C. (1999). Developing Technical Training: A
Structured Approach for Developing Classroom
and Computer-Based Instructional Materials. Silver
Spring, MD: International Society for Performance
Harp, S.F. and Mayer, R.E. (1998). How seductive
details do their damage: A theory of cognitive interest
in science learning. Journal of Educational
Psychology, 90 (3), 414-434.
Kalyuga, S., Chandler, P., and Sweller, J. (2000).
Journal of Educational Psychology, 92 (1), 126-
Moreno, R. & Mayer, R.E. (2002). Verbal redundancy
in multimedia learning: When reading helps listening.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 94 (1),
Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The Media Equation.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Ruth Clark is a recognized specialist
in instructional design and technical
training, and holds a doctorate
in Educational Psychology and Instructional
Technology from the University
of Southern California. Prior to
founding Clark Training & Consulting, she served as
Training Manager for Southern California Edison. Dr.
Clark is a past president of the ISPI. She is the author
of three books including Developing Technical Training
and the award-winning Building Expertise. Her
most recent book, E-Learning & The Science of
Instruction is co-authored with Dr. Richard Mayer of
the University of California at Santa Barbara, a recognized
expert in multimedia research. Dr. Clark is a frequent
speaker at industry events around the world.
Reach Ruth by e-mail at Ruth@Clarktraining.com.
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