The Coherence Principle states that adding interesting but unnecessary material to e-learning can harm the learning process (Clark & Mayer 2008). According to the principle, background audio, graphics or words which are added in an attempt to make a lesson more interesting or engaging, but which are not directly linked to the learning objective, can actually have a detrimental effect on the learner. Examples of this could be: background music for entertainment, sound effects to try and maintain interest, video clips or images which tell a side story, overcomplicated or realistic visuals, and overly wordy or detailed texts. The authors suggest that designers of e-learning and multimedia learning resources should consider whether additions can actually distract, disrupt or seduce the learner’s process of knowledge construction (Clark and Mayer 2008).
Evidence which is presented to support the principle is based on some 14 experiments carried out over a period of years. The authors acknowledge that this a small sample size and that the experiments were all short lessons conducted in laboratory conditions. This lead them to state that there is more research to be carried out, especially into whether the same results would be seen in real instructional situations over longer periods of time. The authors also acknowledge that the research was based largely on novice learners and so the effects on more experienced learners needs to be further investigated (Clark and Mayer 2008).
Reflecting upon my own e-learning experiences in relation to the coherence principle has proven difficult. I have not participated in many online learning forums or courses and those that I have taken were some time ago. Evaluating the content of a course, taken in the past, in terms of a principle which I have just learned about is tricky. Thinking back to resources which I no longer have access to could mean that my reflections are hazy. With those caveats, I have tried to remember and reflect on experiences as authentically as I can.
I took part in an online training session on child protection and safety in schools which was composed of videos, text and interactive slides. The format was relatively straightforward and there was an assessment at the end of the course. Information was given and shared and then assessed. There was no background music or sound effects at all in the course. The only audio came with the voiceover of the presenter. I think this was an attempt to adhere to the coherence principle, by avoiding extraneous audio (Clark and Mayer 2008).
In the same course there was an interactive section where you had to click on different virtual ‘post-it notes’ to reveal text which you then had to move around on little blackboards. I can remember thinking that it was over complicated. I think this would be an example of adding extraneous graphics and thus being a disruption to my learning (Clark and Mayer 2008). I was focused more on the look and activity that the content. A second possible violation of the principle in the course involved extraneous text. Towards the end of the course, there were some activities which included reading some longer pieces of text. There was the option to expand and read more, however the main and important information which was summarized at the start. I remember clicking to begin reading and then stopping when I realized it was going off at a tangent. I re-read the summary and introduction again and that was exactly the information which was assessed. The expanded information was largely irrelevant to what was being asked for in terms of learning. I think this was a violation of the principle as it did not provide a concise summary of what I was expected to learn, rather it gave additional complementary material. (Clark and Mayer 2008)
My understanding of the Coherence Principle is that it really relies upon the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia learning as its foundation (Moreno and Mayer, 2000). At the same time it sits alongside contiguity, modality, and redundancy almost as an equal partner. Learners use two channels to process information (visual and auditory) and their relative capacities are limited (Moreno and Mayer, 2000). This limitation in capacity essentially means that adding extra information is a risky thing, because the channels can be overloaded and the extraneous information takes up space which is unable to be used by the brain’s working memory for the important content. My understanding of contiguity, modality and redundancy is that they are almost like children in terms of their relationship to cognitive theory. Each of them in their simplest form has some aspect of, ‘less is better’. This is all because of the way that learners take on and process information. To me cognitive theory is the parent from which the other sibling principles stem and without which they cannot exist.
In each section of their chapter on the Coherence Principle, (Clark and Mayer 2008) support their theories by relating them to fundamental theories of psychology. In discussing why to avoid adding extraneous audio, they talk about Arousal theory. This theory predicts that emotional arousal can improve cognition and that multimedia presentations with audio which aims to achieve this – will be more effective to learners. They argue that while this seems to make sense that is is actually the opposite of what is true and that extraneous sounds and audio effects actually help to block up the auditory channel and make deeper learning more difficult.
In discussing reasons to avoid extraneous graphics in e-learning the authors argue against the idea that comes from arousal theory that video and pictures add enjoyment to learning. They believe that enjoyment cannot be ‘added on’ but is achieved by the learner when they are successfully able to make sense of material. They argue that the addition of extraneous pictures overloads the capacity of the learner to process information in the visual channel. Three ways that graphics can interfere with learning, distraction, disruption and seduction are detailed and explained.
Finally, the authors discuss the psychological reasons to avoid extraneous words in e-learning. The argument for this is largely the same as before. Words added for interest, elaboration or technical depth are all discussed briefly. The underlying belief is held that Arousal theory is in direct conflict with Cognitive Theory of Multimedia learning. Interest and extra information in the form of words, simply competes for space in the learner’s working memory and leads to less effective learning.
Personally, the principle seems to make perfect sense to me. It fits well with the other principles I have learned about so far and is based on research rather than just conjecture. I like that the authors are honest enough to highlight the areas where they know that further investigation is required (effects on more expert learners for example) and what they don’t know at the moment. Having taught elementary learners for a long time, I have always believed that less is more. I have often found myself reflecting on why a lesson didn’t work for me and thought about information overload as one of those reasons. With that in mind the concept of keeping extraneous information to minimum makes real sense. Overload the channels and less relevant information gets assimilated.
I would like to see further investigations into game based learning and the role of audio and video in that context. The authors acknowledge that there is not enough data at the moment in this field. I wonder if the game based learning which my pupils do would be as engaging with the sound turned off. It would be interesting to see if they remained engaged as long? The only area where I would want to question the authors is the use of Dewey’s work to back up their own. Being published in 1913 the work may well still be very valid, but much has changed in our understanding of how we learn and in education in the last 100 years. Maybe Dewey’s beliefs about enjoyment can be challenged? Overall, I was convinced by the arguments made by the authors and look forward to learning more on the topic.
Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2008). E-learning and the science of instruction, 3rd edition. Pfeiffer: San Francisco, CA.
Mayer, R. E. (1999). Multimedia aids to problem-solving transfer. International Journal of Educational Research, 31(7), 611-623.
Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (2000). A learner-centered approach to multimedia explanations: Deriving instructional design principles from cognitive theory. Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning, 2(2), 2004-07. Retrieved March 22, 2015 from http://imej.wfu.edu/articles/2000/2/05/index.asp