Many instructional designers rely more heavily on their technical capabilities and intuitive beliefs than on research-based principles when creating e-learning courses. And though it’s totally natural to let your skills and intuitions guide you, how can you be sure they’re leading you in the right direction? Take the topic at hand: do graphics improve learning? Perhaps you instinctively feel like people learn better from a combination of words and graphics than from words alone. Well, the evidence presented by Mayer and Clark in their book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction would tend to agree with you!

According to Mayer and Clark, learners who took a multimedia lesson that included a combination of words and graphics—defined as illustrations, photos, charts, graphs, maps, animations, or videos—performed 89 percent better than those who took the same course with text alone.

Sounds like a good reason to do away with text-only slides, right? Well, yes and no. Before you rush to fill your screens with graphics, it’s important to note that when it comes to learning, not all graphics are equally effective. Let’s take a closer look at what types of graphics contribute to better learning outcomes.

Graphics That Improve Learning

If you’d like to add graphics to your course in order to improve learning outcomes, you should focus on visuals that show the relationship between concepts, organize the material into categories, illustrate change over time, or turn abstract concepts into concrete diagrams. This includes tables, graphs, maps, time-lapses, videos, and animations. For example, if you’re creating a course about how telecommunication networks function, you might decide to create a diagram like the one below to help learners visualize the process:

Click to see the interactive version.

For more concrete examples of graphics that help learners understand material, check out this article: 7 Ways to Use Graphics for Learning.

Graphics That Don’t Improve Learning

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that decorative graphics don’t actually help learners better understand the course material. That being said, learners did report enjoying courses more when decorative images were included, even if they didn’t necessarily help them learn more, so those kinds of images aren’t without value.

The same goes for representational graphics—or graphics that portray a single object—even if they’re related to the course content. Say you’re creating a course on the flu vaccine and include a picture of a syringe. While that image is relevant, since it relates back to the topic, it’s not actually helping your learners better understand the material.

The Bottom Line

Only graphics that help learners better understand or organize the course material—rather than simply making it look nice—impact learning outcomes. That doesn’t mean you should cut out any other images, since learners seem to appreciate them when they’re used appropriately, but it’s important to realize that they’re not contributing to the learning process.

If you’re interested in learning more about the multimedia principle as well as the other evidence-based guidelines for e-learning design, grab a copy of E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, which is where we got the information for this article.

Short on time? We’ve summarized a few of the other key points presented in their book in the following articles:

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, please share them in the comments.

Jeffrey Dalto
Chris Roetzer

It was nice to come upon this post, Rich Mayer has some compelling research on this topic and when studying him during my grad cert program at UF, I picked him as an educational psychologist to study for a project. His theory of multimedia design is really intriguing and after learning about him and the principles, I definitely put some of those to work in my design strategies (and also stopped doing some things that he found to be ineffective). In my most recent class (Designing Integrated Multimedia Environments), interestingly my professor didn't disparage Myer in any way but he did want to point out to me a criticism of Mayer about which to be aware, I suppose to keep it in perspective. The criticism seemed to be regarding how authentic the trails or learning environments were. I k... Expand