Does eLearning have to look pretty?

My professor at Quinnipiac University, Phillip Simon, set me to work one day investigating the importance of appearance in interactive learning experiences. Specifically, the question was:

Investigate the impact of images, diagrams and graphic design on the effectiveness of interactive learning tools.

  • If the content is the same, how does changing its appearance matter?
  • What elements of graphic presentation most help students?
  • What matters most – what it looks like or how it works?

The eventual aim was to create a study in which the exact same digital content would be presented in two or more visual contexts to a fairly homogenous group of participants. The study would indicate the extent to which adding pictorial, graphic and diagrammatic elements to text improves – or hinders – learning. We never got around to the study, but the literature review described below threw up some interesting ideas.

Does appearance affect learning?

There is a clear body of research in favor of the idea that adding visual elements to plain text can enhance learning, at least when used correctly.

Most research is focused on traditional learning, although with the rise of online and digital instruction more interest is turning to the effective graphic presentation of digital learning material.

1. Multimedia Learning

The Multimedia Principle, formulated by Mayer, Clark et al, essentially states that people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. The Multimedia Principle further encompasses:

  • Contiguity principle: In order to be effective, pictures must be linked to the relevant words in time and space.
  • Coherence principle: Extraneous or redundant multimedia material hinders, not helps, learning.

Most researchers agree with Mayer that the simple fact of adding pictures to words does not automatically enhance learning. Images must be directly relevant to the content and correctly positioned in relation to it.

2. Instructional Design

The field of Instruction Design examines how to make learning materials effective.

A crucial question is what ‘effective’ means when evaluating learning. The literature centers around three main benchmarks:

  1. Participant can complete a task there and then.
  2. Participant can retain the instructions in their short-term memory and recite them by rote.
  3. Participant can retain the instructions in their long-term memory and has gained a transferable skill.

Any study plan must make it clear which type of learning is being tested.

3. Online Learning (a.k.a. E-Learning or Digital Instruction)

How does online and digital learning differ from traditional book-based and live (teacher) learning?

  • Attention span is shorter online: 40-45 minutes maximum.
  • Online learning replaces not just books and texts, but live learning.
  • Online and digital instruction can be adaptive, i.e. can create customized lessons for different people based on their preferences and responses.
  • Instant world-wide distribution possible.

How do the requirements and possibilities of graphic presentation differ on- and off-line?

  • Can use full color at no extra cost.
  • Can add animation at little extra cost.
  • Can add audio and video at little extra cost.
  • Can vary style sheet easily, depending on user preference or accessibility needs.
  • Interactivity can affect graphic presentation.

Do different types of people respond differently to presentation styles online?

  • E.g. Do older people tend to prefer more traditional, book-like designs?
  • And vice-versa?
  • I have been unable to find any academic studies on this. It would be interesting to test in real life, although perhaps beyond the scope of this project.

Useful sources

  • Richard E. Mayer Multimedia Learning (CUP 2001). See particularly p64 onwards. Richard Mayer is the godfather of Multimedia Learning and the Multimedia Principle. In this book he offers seven principles for designing effective multimedia learning materials and explores “the potential of using words and pictures together to promote human understanding.”
  • Fletcher, JD & Tobias, S (2005). The Multimedia Principle. In RE Mayer (ed) The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning pp117-134. Page 121 in particular offers a great review of Mayer’s many studies.
  • Ruth Colvin Clark, Richard E. Mayer (2002). E-learning and the science of instruction: proven guidelines for consumers. Available online in Google Book. Ruth Clark is the other big name in this field, along with Richard Mayer. See particularly chapter 3: Applying the Multimedia Principle.
  • Clark & Mayer Design Principles of Multimedia Learning (2003). Available online in the Journal of Online Mathematics. This is a very brief list of Clark and Mayer’s basic design principles.
  • Mayer, Richard E. and Massa, Laura J. Three Facets of Visual and Verbal Learners: Cognitive Ability, Cognitive Style, and Learning Preference. Available online. This explores why “Some people are better at processing words and some people are better at processing pictures” – the visualizer-verbalizer debate. Contains a study of 95 college students focusing on cognitive style (visual/verbal learning), learning preference, spatial ability, general achievement in verbal/mathematical tests.
  • Ruth Colvin Clark and Chopeta Lyons Graphics for Learning: Proven Guidelines for Planning, Designing, and Evaluating Visuals in Training Materials. This book is a practical guide to designing effective graphics for print and online learning materials. According to the blurb, “Based on solid research on how people learn, this crucial resource contains best practices and shows you how to go beyond the visible features of graphics to plan visuals that are based on their communication and psychological functions.”
  • Rieber, L.P. (1994). Computers, graphics, and learning. Madison, Wisconsin: Brown & Benchmark. Available online. Lloyd Rieber’s book, though fairly old, foresees the move towards graphical user interfaces and online learning, and encourages designers to “reflect on what motivates their decisions to incorporate graphics in instructional materials.”
  • Connie Malamed Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand. See also her website and blog. Malamed is a consultant in the fields of e-learning, visual communication, media design, and information design. She has an especially interesting article on color.

Other related journal articles

  • Bohus, D., Rudnicky, A. I., & Institute, Human-Computer Interaction Institue at Carnegie Mellon (2004). Users’ Performance and Preferences for Online Graphic, Text and Auditory Presentation of Instructions. Online at:
  • Plass, Jan L., Chun, Dorothy M., Mayer, Richard E., Leutner, Detlev (1998). Supporting visual and verbal learning preferences in a second-language multimedia learning environment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 0022-0663, 1998, Vol. 90, Issue 1
  • Mayer, RE (1989). Systematic thinking fostered by illustrations in scientific text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 240-246.
  • Mayer, RE & Anderson, RB (1992) The instructive animation: Helping students build connections between words and pictures in multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 444-452.
  • Mayer, RE & Anderson, RB (1992) Animations need narrations: An experimental test of a dual-processing system in working memory. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 312-320.
  • Mayer, RE & Gallini, JK (1990) When is an illustration worth ten thousand words? Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 64-73.
  • Mayer, RE et al (2005) When static media promote active learning. Journal of Educational Psychology: Applied, 11, 256-265
  • Robinson, DH (2002). Spatial text adjuncts and learning. Educational Psychology Review, 14(1)
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