Recently we looked at how adding graphics to words can significantly improve learning. In that post, I mentioned that we need to strike a critical balance when designing instructional materials: between the evidence-based guidelines that have been proven to support and improve learning, and our own experience-based intuition.

Today, I’d like to give you something to think about the next time your intuition (or your client’s) suggests you “spice up” a boring topic or try to grab your learner’s attention by adding interesting or entertaining elements to your instructional content. While that may seem like a well-intentioned idea, you have to ask yourself what impact this would have on the effectiveness of your course.

* Moreno & Mayer 2000

Richard Mayer’s Coherence Principle tells us that adding interesting or entertaining elements that are irrelevant to the instructional goal actually interferes with learning. Mayer and his colleagues theorize that these seductive details can interfere with learning in several ways, including:

1. Diverting the learner’s attention from key instructional points

2. Disrupting the learner’s organization of information into a coherent mental model

3. Activating irrelevant prior knowledge

If you’re not convinced of the importance of focusing your learner’s attention in the right place, take a minute to see how well you fare on the test presented in this video.

Watch video

So, how did you do? If you got it on the first try, or if you’re not convinced that you need to focus your learner’s attention on the right things, give this version a shot.

Now let’s look at an example specific to e-learning. Say you need to create a slide for biology students that identifies parts of a flower.

While a slide like this is factually correct, let’s try applying Mayer’s principles to make it better. When we replace the original decorative graphic with a visual that better supports the learning objective, we can significantly reduce the amount of text on the slide. This satisfies both the Multimedia and Coherence principles, and does a much better job of focusing the learner’s attention on the information that matters. See the difference here:

*Demo content from Oregon State University and Shane Eubanks

In essence, less is more. Adding gratuitous media can detract from learning, so be deliberate with your design and resist the temptation to “spice up” your course with unnecessary bells and whistles.

You can learn more about the Coherence principle and the rest of Mayer’s principles in E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning” (Locate at a Public Library).


Clark, R. C., and R. E. Mayer. E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2007).

Garner, Ruth, Mark G. Gillingham, and C. Stephen White. "Effects of' seductive details' on macroprocessing and microprocessing in adults and children." Cognition and Instruction 6.1 (1989): 41-57.

Harp, Shannon F., and Richard E. Mayer. "How seductive details do their damage: A theory of cognitive interest in science learning." Journal of Educational Psychology 90.3 (1998): 414.

Mayer, R. E., J. Heiser, and S. Lonn. “Cognitive constraints on multimedia learning: When presenting more material results in less understanding.” Journal of Educational Psychology 93 (2001), 187–198.

Moreno, R. and R. E. Mayer. “A coherence effect in multimedia learning: The case for minimizing irrelevant sounds in the design of multimedia instructional messages.” Journal of Educational Psychology 97 (2000), 117-125.

Post by Mike Taylor

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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 site. Pr... Expand

Rebecca Fleisch Cordeiro