How to Use the Coherence Principle in E-learning

Mayer's Coherence principle in e-learningIt is thought that today’s generation, who grew up amidst YouTube and role-playing video games, need more motivational stimuli when it comes to learning. Many e-learning modules include visuals, sounds, and pieces of information for the sole purpose of making the lesson more interesting. What some people don’t know is that some of these materials do not support learning. What’s more, many of these could be disruptive and can negatively affect the learning process. This is where the Coherence Principle comes in.

Among the basic principles set by Mayer to support cognitive processes, the Coherence Principle is the simplest to understand and the easiest to apply. This principle simply means that the lesson should be kept uncluttered – that is, free from any material that does not contribute to the goals of instruction. Many e-learning instructors may be tempted to add extra effects, sounds, pictures, animations or text, reasoning out that these will attract the learner’s interest more and increase motivation for learning. This; however, contradicts the cognitive theory of multimedia learning, where unimportant elements can merely contribute to additional cognitive load and put a strain on working memory.

Below are the three principles of coherence that can be used to make learning more efficient.

 Coherence Principle 1 – Exclude Extraneous Audio from e-Lessons

Since all of Mayer’s recommendations are evidence-based, carefully reviewed literature suggest that extraneous sounds, such as background music, should be avoided in e-lessons. As discussed in previous articles, there are two channels by which information enters cognitive processing – the auditory channel and visual channel. Information that enters both of these channels is transmitted into working memory. When background music or sounds that enter the auditory channel are not relevant to the information being processed in the visual channel, working memory is overloaded as the brain tries to comprehend different stimuli at once. Also, if there are background sounds along with speech, these extraneous sounds compete with the more important narration about the topic, an event which should be avoided as there is a limited working capacity for each channel, in this case, the auditory channel.

Many e-learning situations place a heavy cognitive load on the learner, such as when learning about complex or unfamiliar material, when the material is fast-paced, or when the learner cannot control the rate of the presentation. These situations, in particular, should not contain any extraneous sounds and irrelevant background music, as there is a higher chance of working memory overload. This may in turn result to disruptive and inefficient learning.

 Coherence Principle 2 – Exclude Extraneous Graphics from e-Lessons

Not all graphics are created equally, and there are those that may add interest but may be irrelevant to the topic at hand. Though there are pictures, video clips, or animations that may be related to the lesson, they may be irrelevant to learning goals, and thus, should not be included in modules.

For example, decorative graphics that show extra (but not significant) details, video clips on related trivia that add interest to the lesson but are not directly related, or animations that perk interest by adding color and movement to an otherwise boring lesson; all of these are merely add-ons that do not support learning. They may even be detrimental since they interfere with the learner’s efforts to understand the lesson at hand.

Simply put, e-lessons should not contain pictures, videos, or animations that do not serve any purpose other than to decorate the page or screen, as they do not have any positive impact on learning.

 Coherence Principle 3 – Exclude Extraneous Words from e-Lessons

It is a common notion in instruction that the lengthier the explanation, the more it benefits the learner. The coherence principle begs to disagree, putting forth that less is more and that extraneous words may be a hindrance to learning.

There are three common reasons for adding extraneous words. First is adding words to increase interest, even if the words are related but not relevant to the learning objectives. Another reason is for elaboration on the primary concepts presented. A third reason is to add technical details that may be too specific or outside the scope of the lesson.

As with the two previous principles, adding unnecessary words again distracts the learner from the real essence of the topic, requiring him to exert more effort in comprehending all the words instead of processing vital information on the thoughts being conveyed. It also overloads working memory, resulting in inferior learning. Because of this, Mayer and Clark (2011) suggest presenting concepts using  simple and concise text or narration. This also benefits instruction when bandwidth and screen space are limited.

In summary, the Coherence Principle generally promotes keeping things simple and to the point. This benefits not only the learner, but also the e-learning module designer, since sticking to this principle does not require adding in more details and extraneous elements that may take time to put in.