Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why

E-Learning illustrating a biological process

E-Learning illustrating a biological process

For the past ten years, Richard Mayer and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara have conducted a series of controlled experiments on how to best use audio, text, and graphics to optimize learning in multimedia. Six media element principles can be defined based on Mayer’s work. What follows is a summary of these principles along with supporting examples, psychological rationale, and research.

Written by Ruth Clark for Learning Solutions Magazine

Take any e-Lesson — show it to five people and ask them what they think. My bet is you will get five different opinions about the quality of the courseware. But, wait! What if the five reviewers are educational “experts” — specialists with advanced degrees in training and education? Now you might expect a greater consensus. Based on my experience over the past three years reviewing courses with experts, I predict a little more agreement; but it’s not likely to be anything close to a consensus.

Unlike classroom training, e-Learning is very visible. While much of the classroom experience is packaged in the instructor, and in fact varies from class to class, you can easily see and hear all elements of e-Learning. Everything from screen color to content accuracy to the types of practices is readily available for scrutiny. I believe that this high visibility will prove to be a good thing. With this much more accessible instructional environment, we will be able to more readily identify effective and ineffective training. But to do so, we have to move beyond a reliance on end-user (or even expert) opinions. After a year of work on a commission tasked to identify the qualities of effective e-Learning, and hearing a great deal of (often contradictory) views, I decided I needed fewer opinions and more data.

Decisions about e-Learning courseware must begin with an understanding of how the mind works during learning and of what research data tell us about what factors lead to learning. This is where decisions must begin. Naturally factors other than psychological effectiveness come into play in your multimedia learning decisions. For example, instructional strategies will be shaped by parameters of the technology like bandwidth and hardware, and by environmental factors such as budget, time, and organizational culture.

What is e-Learning?

Since the term e-Learning is used inconsistently, let’s start with a basic definition. For the purposes of this discussion, e-Learning is content and instructional methods delivered on a computer (whether on CDROM, the Internet, or an intranet), and designed to build knowledge and skills related to individual or organizational goals. This definition addresses:

The what: training delivered in digital form,

The how: content and instructional methods to help learn the content, and

The why: to improve organizational performance by building job-relevant knowledge and skills in workers.

In this article, the main focus and examples are drawn from business self-study courseware that may include synchronous or asynchronous communication options. For example, the screen in Figure 1 is part of a Web-delivered course designed to teach the use of software called Dreamweaver to create Web pages. The main content is the steps needed to perform this particular task with Dreamweaver. The instructional methods include a demonstration of how to perform the steps along with an opportunity to practice and get feedback on your accuracy…continue reading.

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