Have you ever been working on an e-learning course and thought to yourself, Maybe I should add some interesting or entertaining elements to jazz up this boring topic? Or perhaps you’ve encountered a Subject Matter Expert (SME) so convinced that every last tidbit of information mattered that you weren’t allowed to trim any fat. Either way, the result is the same: your course ends up with content that doesn’t necessarily support the learning objectives. 

While that might not seem like a big deal, according to the evidence presented by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer in their book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, extraneous information can actually have a negative impact on learning. Let’s take a closer look.

Why Less Is More When It Comes to Learning

Clark’s and Mayer’s research shows that adding content—like text, graphics, and sound effects—strictly to entertain your learners or provide them with “nice to know” information can actually make it harder for them to learn. That’s because unnecessary content:

  • Distracts the learner’s attention from key messages and directs it toward “more interesting” but less important information, making the learner less likely to remember the core content.
  • Disrupts the connections between key messages, making it hard for the learner to piece them together and understand the big picture.
  • Diverts the learner’s focus, leading them to try to make sense of the extraneous information instead of the key messages.

Basically, any information that doesn’t support your course’s objectives—however interesting it may be—distracts from the core content and leads to worse learning outcomes.

More Resources

In sum, less is more. Adding gratuitous media can detract from learning, so be deliberate with your design. Resist the temptation to spice up your course with unnecessary bells and whistles and be sure to weed out any “nice to know” information so learners can focus on the key points.

If you’d like to dig deeper into this and other evidence-based best practices for e-learning design, be sure to check out the book that inspired this article: E-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer.

Short on time? These articles summarize a few of the other key points presented in their book:

And if you’re looking for more evidence-based e-learning design advice, check out this article: What You Need to Know About Encouraging Your Learners to Pay Attention.

Remember to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. If you have any questions or comments, please share them below.

9 Comments
Steve Flowers

Decision-making for how to choose specific visuals or media for expressing meaning is a challenge. To answer with my perspective, Paul, it's one part audience, one part concept. Meaning is somewhere in between the audience (who have varying backgrounds and will interpret concepts differently) and the concept itself. This type of decision-making is a challenge for a lot of folks -- it's a challenge for me and I've been doing it for almost 20 years:) Fortunately, there are some really great models and toolkits that can help to scaffold the decision-making process. These are all tuned for drawing your own visuals but the same concepts apply to picking and assembling pre-made assets or building technical illustrations: - Dan Roam offers some free tidbits on his napkinacademy.com site. Pr... Expand

Rebecca Fleisch Cordeiro