In the article Multimedia Principle: Adding Graphics to Words Improves Learning we talked about how the research Mayer and Clark present in their book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction shows that mixing words and graphics can be beneficial to learners. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg! They also provide ideas on how to position graphics and related text for best results, which is what we’re going to take a close look at in this article.
What Is the Contiguity Principle?
Mayer’s research says that learning improves when images and related text are kept together—or contiguous (hence the name contiguity principle). The same goes for descriptive audio. For effective learning, any narration that describes graphics on the screen should be synchronized with the appearance of those graphics. The evidence outlined in the book shows that learning improves 68 percent when words and the visuals they describe are presented near one another.
Makes sense, right? If the words are separated from the relevant graphics, learners have to work harder to make the connection than they would if they were combined.
Applying the Contiguity Principle
So what does this look like in practice? Let’s walk through a concrete example:
The graphic above doesn’t follow the best practices outlined in the contiguity principle. While it might look neat when it’s arranged this way, putting the labels so far away from the parts of the diagram they correspond to requires learners to work harder to match them up. Since working memory is limited, this extra effort takes away from their ability to learn the material itself. Now let’s look at that same diagram with integrated labels:
The image above follows the rules outlined in the contiguity principle: the labels appear next to the relevant parts of the diagram. This version allows learners to identify the parts of the diagram in a glance, allowing them to focus on understanding the material instead of on matching the labels with the corresponding parts.
Sometimes following these guidelines is easier said than done, like, for example, when screen space is limited or the text interferes with your graphic. One strategy for situations like these is to use markers to position the related text near a graphic without overloading the screen—or your learners. Here’s an example of what that could look like, using the same graphic as above:
This way the related text is right where it needs to be but doesn’t clutter up the screen. It’s the best of both worlds!
This all seems pretty logical, right? And it is! But even so, many of us are guilty of not applying it in our courses. In addition to labeling graphics directly instead of using keys or legends, check out this list of do’s and don’ts to avoid making some of the most common mistakes in regards to the contiguity principle.
Integrate any descriptive text or labels into your animations directly.
Place text on one side of the screen and animated graphics on the other side of the screen.
Make sure the quiz question and learner responses are still visible when giving feedback.
Put quiz feedback on a separate screen, making it impossible for learners to refer back to the question and/or the answers they chose.
Make sure instructions are visible when learners need them.
Put instructions on a separate screen, making them unavailable when the learner needs to apply them.
Are you guilty of any of these common mistakes? If so, you’re not alone! The key is to start thinking about these “don’ts” when creating new courses so you can do the right thing moving forward.
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? Check out these articles where we’ve summarized a few of the other key points presented in their book:
- Personalization Principle: Speaking to Instead of at Your Learners
- Multimedia Principle: Adding Graphics to Words Improves Learning
- Redundancy Principle: Should You Duplicate Narrated Text On Screen?
- Coherence Principle: Less Material for Better Learning