When you create e-learning courses, do you generally include on-screen text that’s identical to the audio narration? If so, you’re definitely not alone. In fact, virtually everyone has created a course like that at some point. However, just because it’s a common practice doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good practice. Let’s take a look at what the research says about using redundant on-screen text.

When to Avoid Redundant On-Screen Text 

As Mayer and Clark explain in their book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, a number of studies have shown that when explaining concepts using visuals, it’s more effective to use audio on its own than to include the same information in both audio and on-screen text.

Researchers believe that there may be a couple of different reasons for this:

  1. Learners can only process one visual at a time. If they’re reading the text, they can’t pay attention to the graphics. 
  2. Learners may focus more on comparing the text on the screen to what they’re hearing in the audio than on the actual content.

When learners have too many things to process at the same time, they can experience cognitive overload, which can prevent them from learning the material. For this reason, in most cases it’s best to avoid including redundant on-screen text when using visuals to explain content. 

When to Include Redundant On-Screen Text 

However, this doesn’t mean you should never include the same text on the screen and in the audio. Mayer and Clark go on to say that research shows that redundant on-screen text can improve learning in some situations. For example:

  • When there aren’t any visuals.
  • When content is presented slowly or when learners can control the pace, giving them enough time to process the visuals and on-screen text.
  • When the redundant on-screen text is boiled down to a few keywords that support the visuals.
  • When the text includes instructions that may need to be referred to later on.
  • When the audio on its own may be difficult for learners to understand, for example, if there are terms they may not be familiar with, if it’s not in their native language, or if they have learning or auditory disabilities. If you’re creating a course for a heterogeneous group of learners, you may choose to provide closed captions that learners can turn on and off as needed.

In these cases, the on-screen text actually reduces the mental load and can improve learning outcomes.

The Bottom Line

Depending on the situation, duplicating narrated text on the screen may either help or hinder the learning process. By following the guidelines outlined in this article, you can be sure to only use it when it makes sense. 

To see for yourself how the use of redundant on-screen text can impact the learning experience, check out this example where we’ve presented the same content in a few different ways. Let us know which one you prefer in the comments section below!

More Resources

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:

And 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.

29 Comments
Bruce Graham
Mike Taylor

Hey Bruce! Yes, discussion is good. Ultimately negotiating with some clients may not be tied to what is best for learning. (That's a whole different discussion unto itself!) One thing you could do if they insist on designing to account for various learning styles is send them over to collect on Wil Thalheimer's Learning Styles Challenge. He's offering $1,000 to anyone can demonstrate that utilizing learning styles improves learning outcomes. http://www.willatworklearning.com/2009/09/learning-styles-challenge-threeyear-update.html It's been a lot of years and nobody has collected yet. Although the research is a few years old, I think the findings are still valid. I don' t think that human brains evolve quite that quickly. If you dig into the details a bit, especially the part about d... Expand

Erika P
John Lamble
Matthew Bibby
Andy Parker
Peter Rushton
Bryan Tregunna

The main reason I recommend NOT repeating text in the audio is that most of us read quicker than we speak. This means that for any text more than just a few words, the learner will be out of synch with the narrator - resulting in them neither understanding what they are reading nor listening to what they are hearing. Alternatively, the learner slows their natural reading speed to match the narration, which results in frustration. While I like to use audio, I find it creates problems which I feel outweigh its value. Ideally, narration should to be professionally produced - in a studio with a voiceover actor. However, budget or other constraints may not allow for this. A reasonable quality can be obtained with modern equipment, but this cannot compensate for the quality of the narrator - ... Expand

Lance  Blair

I'm a voice over talent, and I completely agree with what you say about reading in sync with the narrator. Good voice over falls in the range of 130-150 words per minute. I just finished a project with 250 slides that opens with "This tutorial is approximately 30 minutes long." Not with voice over! There is also the question of whether the audience is international, and speaking English as a second language. Clarity of diction and easy-to-follow pacing is essential, while still sounding engaging. I come from a video production background, and I identify with what you say about script revisions. I'm always on call for pickups and the first ten sentences of revisions are no extra charge. It's hard to get talent back if they do lots of commercial/radio/tv work. Choose a talent that specialize... Expand

Russell Duhon

I'm confused by the 79% claim of improvement on audio only vs audio plus redundant on-screen text; it seems to be a reference to this line in the cited source, except the line says basically the opposite: "In this situation, learners who received redundant on-screen text and spoken text generated an average of 79 percent more correct answers on a problem-solving test than learners who received only spoken text (Moreno & Mayer, 2002a)." The situation they're describing with the 79% improvement is one where "the learner sees and hears a sentence, then views ten seconds of animation corresponding to it, then sees and hears the next sentence, then views ten seconds of corresponding animation, and so on" -- exactly the sort of text on screen being read situation this article claims is bad. ... Expand

Rachel McGregor
Brenden Carter
Bruce Graham
Benjamin Passons

Good points all, and I'm glad this threat was resurrected because I'm pretty passionate about this... There are so many variables to consider. What type of course is it? If I'm building a course about how to write Arabic script for a non-Arabic speaker I might decide to have audio and animation of the script being written playing simultaneously ("Aaaslam Ali-koom" as the script is drawn out from right-to-left, maybe along with the English equivalent). However, if I'm building a course about how to change timing belts in Volvos (bear with me, not a car guy here) instead of: Audio: The timing belt is located under the flux capacitor in the '78 Volvo On-Screen Text: The timing belt is located under the flux capacitor in the '78 Volvo On-Screen Animation: Timing Belt is circled/highl... Expand

Therese Cormack
Robin Wooten

Pertaining to the cell phone tower example - I think we are not comparing actual circumstances. I am not sure it is exemplifying the points in the article above. Who would put a long list of only text on one screen? No good e-learning designer I know. Instead, each line of text would probably have its own animation akin to the last example. These would be on separate slides. Then perhaps the complete text might be available on a summary slide. If the examples were more congruent then one might be able to feel the effect of redundancy or not. The second example with different text versus narration was definitely jarring but the first two examples were so long I only paid attention to the first text example. If I would have had a picture to occupy my mind while the person was talking; I c... Expand