11 Principles Of eLearning: Demystified And Applied


The intrinsic value of eLearning—its limitless accessibility, applications, and advancements—can’t be overstated. Learners from classrooms to corporations have access to self-paced, just-in-time education and training at their fingertips. And with technology, eLearning is ever-changing and evolving to meet lifelong learners exactly where they are and provide them with exactly what they need, exactly when they need it.

But eLearning courseware is more than words and audio on a screen. To create an effective and impactful course, learning materials must be strategically and thoughtfully designed with appropriate Instructional Design principles.

These principles guide each course and are adjusted and customized to create the most impactful learning experience. Simply put, Instructional Designers are like master chefs, who have to balance and blend all the principles necessary to capitalize on each opportunity to engage and educate a learner.

Principles Of eLearning

In his book, Multimedia Learning [1], Richard E. Mayer discusses 12 principles that shape the design and organization of multimedia presentations. Here, we break down and demystify 11 of these fundamental eLearning principles:

1. Multimedia Principle

This principle uses words and graphics concurrently, rather than words exclusively. This approach engages both visual and auditory elements as learners often prefer to learn from both words and pictures, rather than from words alone. With new innovations such as 3-D modeling and animation, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality courses are being brought to life like never before, creating maximum impact. This principle is economical, impactful and the combinations therein are virtually limitless, making it an easy choice.

2. Contiguity Principles

This principle leverages words and corresponding graphics, presenting both elements in close proximity to one another, and is broken into 2 subcategories: spatial and temporal contiguity.

  • Spatial Contiguity Principle

This principle relies on spatial relativity, keeping the words explaining a concept and their accompanying images together, and facilitates a learner’s ability to fully understand and process the information.

  • Temporal Contiguity Principle

Conversely, this principle presents corresponding words and images simultaneously, rather than successively. Both visuals—words and images—can then be processed concurrently to facilitate retention and understanding.

Think of it like this: instead of revealing all page elements at once, learners can instead actively select certain features using a ‘hover-and-reveal’ or ‘click-and-reveal’ feature to avoid overloading the screen—and the audience.

3. Modality Principle

This principle presents words and information in the form of audio narration, rather than on-screen text. Images are described as well so learners don’t risk experiencing cognitive overload, as they can instead focus on one element: the narration.

According to the Cognitive Load Theory, the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time is limited. As such, this principle caters to the theory that related sources of information can be understood with the integration—rather than the separation—of information through narration.

The narration is a powerful tool, especially when leveraged as a real-life testimonial that conveys the intensity or severity of topics. Through impactful student testimonials, for example, there are online learning modules which use the power of storytelling narration in their online learning designed to prevent sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, and stalking on college campuses.

4. Redundancy Principle

This principle explains visuals with words in audio or text, but not both. As such, both elements instead complement one another, rather than confound a learner with an overload of all available elements, using a less-is-more approach.

An example of this principle in action is when learners are empowered to choose whether they want to listen to audio or read the text. Captions can be turned on or off, and audio can be muted for times when learners are in a shared space.

5. Coherence Principle

Similar to the Redundancy Principle, this also adopts a less-is-more approach. Irrelevant, extraneous or inapplicable information is eliminated, including audio, visuals, and words, to avoid distraction and increase learning and retention, allowing the learner to concentrate on critical elements only.

Simply put: if words, audio, or images can be omitted without affecting the impact of the message or information, omit them.

6. Personalization Principle

This principle indicates the use of a conversational-style voice and tone—rather than a formal, authoritative tone—to put the learner at ease. It serves to give the content a more approachable, intimate feel so learners can process the content more easily with increased attention and engagement.

Consider these 2 tones for explaining compounding interest from eLearning and the Science of Instruction [2]:

  • Example 1

‘Interest is compounded or added to the existing cash balance monthly. For disclosure on client statements, the annual percentage yield earned is calculated as follows …’

  • Example 2

‘Clients will often ask you to explain how the Annual Percentage Yield on their statement was calculated. This can be confusing, so let's run through an example …’

The Personalization Principle would then suggest that the second, more informal example is more relatable and, therefore, more engaging to the learner.

7. Segmenting Principle

This principle serves to manage complexity by breaking a lesson into smaller, more palatable parts. Since eLearning is predominantly self-paced, this principle helps to reinforce that process, facilitating learning with user-paced segments, rather than as a continuous module. Further, this principle gives learners more control, allowing them to find what they need, see where they’ve been and know what to expect.

Accordingly, microlearning, a new technique being utilized in eLearning, breaks down course material into smaller, more digestible segments.

8. Signaling Principle

This principle suggests that people learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added, encouraging organized learning content. Further, it suggests that content should get incrementally more complex, with simpler concepts being presented first.

The simplest way to contextualize the principle is to think back on meals as a child. Just as you would spread your lima beans all over your plate to give the illusion you’ve eaten more than you have, breaking up blocks of content into visually smaller chunks gives the illusion of more manageable, bite-sized content.

9. Voice Principle

This principle suggests that people learn better when the narration is spoken in an intimate, informal friendly human voice rather than a robotic voice. Often, machine voices are more cost-effective but in the long run, retention and engagement suffer.

In fact, SafeSchools, for example, won a storytelling award, highlighting how effectively courses can deliver information by creating relatable scenarios with which your learners will empathize, thus fostering an emotional connection with the content.

10. Pre-Training Principle

This principle capitalizes on what essentially amounts to learning calisthenics as learners benefit when they preemptively know the names and characteristics included in the content. If you think of learning as a cocktail party, the pre-training principle is a learner’s first introduction to everyone at the party, upon which they build familiarity, comfort—and then continue building once connections are fostered.

Think of it like this: before a learner is to begin a course of complex, industry-jargoned content, a course can present a list of frequently used—but relatively uncommon—terms and phrases so the learner has a much greater chance of success—and retention.

In the ‘recipe’ of eLearning, Instructional Design can leverage any combination of these principle ‘ingredients’ in order to provide limitless opportunities for learning. These design principles provide eLearning courseware and content variety—the ‘spice’ of learning—to make it endlessly engaging, informative, and instructional for both corporate and classroom learners alike.

By Victoria Zambito