The Principle of Spatial Contiguity

spatial contiguity mayerInstructional design for e-learning does not simply consist of multimedia elements interspersed with learning topics. In contrast, it involves the application of several principles that can enhance learning by presenting information in such a way that complements how the human mind works.

One such principle is the Spatial Contiguity principle. This principle is also referred to as Contiguity Principle 1, where the emphasis lies on presenting relevant elements as close together as possible.

In many e-learning modules, the learner has to scroll up and down a page to read a certain portion of the lesson. In some instances, one you’ve scrolled down to finish reading the text, you have to scroll back up to look at the supporting graphic. This example is a violation of the principle of spatial contiguity. This principle emphasizes that, when using both text and graphics, printed words have to be found as close as possible to their corresponding graphic. This can be done, for example, in diagrams that show an object and its parts. The labels for the parts should be printed near the corresponding parts and have a line or pointer connecting them. This works much better in contrast to having the parts listed below the diagram as a legend or caption. Another instance is when a topic involves a process or mechanism depicted in a series of images or illustrations. Each still image should have its corresponding text connected using a pointing line, instead of using a main caption for all images or an explanation in the main text. Pop up messages using mouse-over techniques can also be utilized if there is a problem with fitting a lot of text on the screen.

Here are other tips to apply the principle of spatial contiguity:

  • Avoid placing captions at the bottom part of screens – Many e-learning modules place explanatory text in a caption below the graphic in an effort to make the screen look much neater. This, however, requires more effort from the learner in scanning the graphic then down to see the explanatory text, then back up to the graphic to reconcile the text with the visual. This takes up more time and causes a break or gap between mental processing. A better way to present this is to move the text nearer the graphic, ideally beside it, and draw pointing lines to connect the text with the parts.
  • Do not separate text and graphics on scrolling screens – Scrolling screens are a common way of presenting topics during e-learning. The problem with this type of method is that only parts of the screen are shown at a time. This becomes a barrier to effective mental processing when on-screen graphics are separated from explanatory text, with the learner being unable to visualize the graphics and text at the same time. A good way to address this problem is to integrate text with graphics so that they can be viewed as one in a single part of the scrolling screen. Mouse-over or pop-up text boxes can also be used if the text is too lengthy to be integrated into a graphic. Fixed screens, instead of scrolling screens, may also be preferable to present the graphic together with its explanatory text embedded into the visual.
  • Do not separate feedback from questions during tests – When feedback for answered questions are placed on a separate screen, again there is a break in the mental process, which adds to cognitive load. In e-learning tests, a good way to reinforce a concept is to immediately show the correct answer and the explanation on the same screen with the question. This allows the learner to efficiently process the correct information.
  • Exercise directions should not be separate from the exercise – Instructions for answering exercises or tests should be found in close proximity with the test to be answered. This allows the learner to easily go back to the instructions once he has seen the exercise and may need confirmation or clarification on how to go about the test.
  • Do not use linked windows that are separate from the primary lesson screen – In some modules, topics in the main lesson screen contain links to examples or supporting information that open up in a separate window. This window, when opened, covers the lessons screen completely, causing the learner to have to alternate between the two windows. To address this issue, smaller windows that can be moved around the screen or mouse-over boxes can be used instead.

Knowing how to apply the Spatial Contiguity Principle in e-learning allows modules to be designed in a way that puts little strain on cognitive load, thus freeing up more effort directed toward comprehension and learning.