ED TECH 513 Multimedia                                                                                

 Project #5: Coherence Analysis

 Jill Hallam-Miller

 March 19, 2017

Coherence Analysis

        In e-learning, the coherence principle tells us to avoid adding to the instructional material any extraneous content that does not directly relate to instructional goals (Clark & Mayer, 2016, p. 151). We often think that if we can add something to the instructional content that will grab learners’ attention--music or other sounds, humor, something surprising or shocking or “seductive”--they will more likely pay attention to the important content that we want them to learn. However, according to the coherence principle, we should avoid using extraneous words, graphics, and audio to instructional content.

PowerPoint presenters often fail to effectively apply the coherence principle. For example, in the not-too-distant past, presenters frequently used animation to add “interesting” elements to their presentations that would grab their audience members’ attention. They might include a chart with moving lines to show growth or trends. This kind of animation isn’t necessary to convey the message, and could actually distract the audience or cause extraneous cognitive processing. A static line using arrows to indicate direction could better illustrate their point without causing distraction or cognitive overload.         

In recent years, there has been a tendency to create instructional games that are intended to make learning more interesting, entertaining, or fun for learners. While it is possible to create truly effective games that do help learners to develop skills and knowledge through game play, it is all too common for the games themselves to be a violation of the coherence principle. This is often the case when an existing game is used as the basis for an educational game into which the concepts to be learned are inserted. For example, if I create a game that is similar to Plants vs. Zombies (because it’s fun and it’s easy to learn how to play), and in between every level, I ask players to answer a question related to information literacy, I’ve seriously violated the coherence principle. Game play may be very engaging for the learners, and the desire to move on to the next level may even make learners interested in moving through the “learning”components between each level, but the irrelevant content of the game would be just as likely as adding irrelevant graphics or words to e-learning lessons to be “distracting and disruptive of the learning process” (Clark & Mayer, 2016, p. 160).

Clark and Mayer (2016) note that the coherence principle helps in the application of other principles. If we apply the coherence principle, we are less likely to choose graphics that serve a decorative purpose rather than supporting learning--which we know we should avoid according to the multimedia principle (Clark & Mayer, 2016, p. 72). Furthermore, Clark and Mayer note that use of the coherence principle “helps to implement the modality principle effectively . . . . By keeping the narration on each screen concise, learners won’t become as frustrated waiting for lengthy audio segments to play” (p. 154). Finally, according to research findings related to the multimedia principle, static illustrations may result in more active processing of the material than animated illustrations, and may reduce the cognitive load that comes with animations (Clark & Mayer, p. 81-2). This, coupled with research related to the coherence principle pertaining to the use of simple rather than complex graphics, may have implications for the use of “highly realistic learning or simulation interfaces” (Clark & Mayer, p. 167).

The psychological theory that supports the use of the coherence principle is the “cognitive theory of multimedia learning, which assumes that working memory capacity is highly limited” (Clark & Mayer, 2016, p. 155). Evidence shows that adding related but unnecessary words to a lesson may interrupt the coherence of the lesson, making it difficult for learners to focus on the essential content, or to retain and transfer the material (Clark & Mayer, p. 156, 158). Extraneous graphics can also lead the learner away from “processing the essential material” (Clark & Mayer, p. 162). Clark and Mayer (2016) note that this may be particularly true when learners “have lower capacity for processing information” (p. 164). Research findings also indicate that extraneous audio, even if unobtrusive, can strain cognitive processing, especially when they compete with narration (Clark & Mayer, p. 170).

The coherence principle is clearly important to the development of e-learning, because when used effectively, it can enhance learning. When not applied, the use of extraneous words, graphics, and audio likely just distracts, confuses, or frustrates learners, and ultimately inhibits learning. What I like about this principle is that it avoids wasting the learner’s time with material that are unessential to building the relevant knowledge and skills. I like that it reminds us that all of the extra “stuff” we could include to grab attention is really just clutter and that it should be left out.Clark and Mayer (2016) suggest that extraneous words, graphics, and audio are often used to mask boring instructional content by “spicing it up” with “entertaining or motivational elements such as dramatic stories, pictures, or background music” (p. 151). The coherence principle reminds us that we need to make the important content interesting in other ways; when it is relevant to learners, when learners are “successful in building a coherent mental representation of the presented material” because the content included helps them learn the material, we don’t need anything extraneous to engage learners (Clark & Mayer, 2016, p. 161).

The coherence principle stands in opposition to the idea of “edutainment.” The concept of edutainment is one that I have seen some librarians embrace (Trefts & Blakeslee, 2000), and I have even seen classes offered for librarians who wish to be able to incorporate edutainment principles into their instruction. As an academic librarian who has very limited time to work with students, I’m opposed to the idea that I’m meeting with classes to entertain them. I want to get down to business and help them to learn as quickly and efficiently as possible. The coherence principle aligns with this goal. I agree with Clark and Mayer’s (2016) suggestion that giving learners opportunities to practice what they’ve learned will make the material more engaging (p. 174).

I wouldn’t say there are caveats to the coherence principle that the authors didn’t consider. Interestingly, though, after reading the chapter, and while driving home from work one day last week and listening to a podcast, the podcasters were doing an advertisement for one of their sponsors that made me think about the coherence principle. The advertisement was for bedding, and after doing the typical promotion, the podcasters went on to talk about thread counts, and how they can be a marketing ploy. This was still part of the sponsor’s promotional material! I actually found the information interesting (but I think as a librarian, I come with a built-in intellectual curiosity that embraces all kinds of odd pieces of possibly-useless knowledge), and was a little disappointed when the podcasters stopped talking about thread count and joked about how they were going to have to tell the sponsors they might have included just a bit too much information in their ad. I’m not sure whether this is an example of how the coherence principle works (was I actually distracted by the extraneous information about thread count that I found so interesting?) or of how it should consider that some extraneous information might encourage interested learners to continue their learning in new directions that the learners might not otherwise have considered before encountering the information. Perhaps a small amount of extraneous information--enough to provide a “lead” to promote curiosity, but not so much as to distract--would be a benefit to learners.


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). e-Learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Trefts, K., & Blakeslee, S. (2000). Did you hear the one about the boolean operators? incorporating comedy into library instruction. Reference Services Review, 28(4), 369-377. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00907320010359731