Where Science Meets Instructional Design
Springer Healthcare Training: Best eLearning Practices

Did You Know? 10 Musings on Best eLearning Practices

By Lori Salamida, Senior Instructional Designer


Showing animation plus text plus audio narration creates cognitive overload and content redundancy. So what pairs better with animation?

According to the modality principle, people learn better when grouping an animation with audio narration rather than animation with text.

Why?  Based on cognitive theory and research evidence, learners may experience an overload of their visual/pictorial channel when they have to process graphics and text at the same time.

A word of caution, though, the modality principle is less likely to apply in situations where the learner is familiar with the material, or in cases where the narrative is complex, contains technical terms or symbols, or is not in the learner’s native language.

Sound effects may seem like fun, but adding extraneous sounds to eLearning can actually harm the learning process.

According to the coherence principle, when learners pay attention to sounds and music, they are less able to pay attention to the narration describing the relevant material. Less is more for most learners, especially when the material is unfamiliar, or when the rate of presentation is rapid or not under the learner’s control. Seems obvious right?

Why? Working memory capacity is highly limited. Background music and sounds can overload and disrupt the cognitive system, so narration and extraneous sounds must compete for limited cognitive resources in the auditory channel.

Avoid the temptation to supplement everything with photos, illustrations or video clips.

Although it may make the eLearning program look nice, when pictures are used only to decorate the page or screen, they are not likely to improve learning.

Why? Similar to extraneous sounds, interspersing interesting but not directly relevant pictures and video can interfere with the learner’s attempts to make sense of the material by preventing the learner from processing the essential material.

Using a conversational writing style can lead to better learning.

Empirical evidence supports the use of an informal writing style (including first-hand second-person language) so that
learners feel they are interacting with a conversational partner. According to the personalization principle, people learn better from personalized narration.

Why? Research shows that when people feel they are in a conversation with a partner, rather than simply receiving information, the feeling of social presence causes the learner to engage in deeper cognitive processing by working to understand what the “presenter” is saying.

The mere presence of an avatar (ie, learning agent) provides no learning benefits.

Although eLearning allows for the use of animated characters to personalize instruction and focus a learner’s attention by moving around the screen — using gaze and gesture, conveying emotions, etc. — studies have revealed no learning benefit when the use of a learning agent was compared with equivalent instruction using no agent.

However, avatars have been shown to add learning benefits when they are used to provide guidance, point out key concepts, present and answer questions, and provide feedback. The personalization principle mentioned above, is particularly applicable when combined with the use of an on-screen learning agent who speaks directly to the learner and helps guide the learning process during an instructional episode.

Why? In the same way that a conversational style can lead to better learning, a learning agent can help prime a sense of social presence in the learner. The activation of social presence, in turn, encourages the learner to engage in deeper cognitive processing, leading to a better learning outcome.


“Interest cannot be added to an otherwise boring lesson like some kind of seasoning”  John Dewey (1913)


To improve learning outcomes, games and simulations must provide explanatory feedback.

Rather than simply providing correct/incorrect feedback, incorporate guidance within simulations or games in the form of brief, succinct feedback to learner responses, or hints that appear between simulation rounds.

Why? In research studies on the effectiveness of medical simulations and games, explanatory feedback was the single most commonly mentioned success factor.

Tailoring instruction to different learning styles does not improve learning outcomes.

Many of us have come to believe the prevailing myth of learning styles theory, which operates on the assumption that we should accommodate different learning styles and preferences (auditory, visual, hands-on, etc.) by offering a balance of instructional strategies and media to address them.

Why? While there are differences among learner abilities that may affect learning, there is no credible evidence that accommodating different learning styles actually improves learning outcomes. Whether the instruction is in the form of an eLearning presentation, print, or a podcast, the mode of presentation should be determined by how well it suits the content and how well it provides access to that content, rather than by asking whether or not we are accommodating preferred learning styles processing, leading to a better learning outcome.

Frequent testing can actually improve learning!

We all know that testing is not a popular activity, but research shows that long-term retention is enhanced when students test themselves repeatedly while studying. Improving performance through frequent testing is known as the testing effect and it has been shown to greatly improve retention of material even when performance is flawed and no feedback is given on missed information.

Why? Some researchers believe that testing works differently in the brain than studying. Testing asks your brain to remember information on cue: this process could perhaps help to organize and create connections that our brains later recognize. In addition, frequent testing encourages learners to study more, to be continuously engaged in the material, and to experience less test anxiety.

Instruction should be designed to reduce working memory load.

Working memory is very limited and must be free in order to process new information. In order for new knowledge to make its way from working memory into long-term memory for later recall, cognitive load must be kept at a minimum during the learning process.

Why? Scientists studying cognitive load theory have found that most of us can keep only about 3 or 4 pieces of information in our working memory at any one time. The way that learning can take place with such a small number of pieces in working memory is by developing schema.

The optimal lesson length for learning is much shorter than you might think!

We’re probably all familiar with the concept of chunking, but what many of us don’t know, is that learner recall drops off dramatically after the first 5 minutes of learning.

Why? According to research on information impact and factors affecting recall, students who watched a 20-minute presentation experienced the highest impact and retention during the first 5 minutes, with impact declining progressively over the following 15 minutes. This tells us that people tend to remember what they learned first, and that information should be organized into chunks that are less than 10 minutes each.

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