1 Coherence Principle

Last week I let you know that we would be looking at the 12 Multimedia Principles, and we’ll get started this week with the Coherence Principle.  The Coherence Principle means eliminating extraneous words, pictures, and sounds.  When this is done there is a deeper understanding of material presented.  

To start looking at this principle it is important to note that:

  • a student does not have an unlimited capacity to learn, 
  • that students do not only have one channel for processing information, and
  • that students are not “passive learners” where you can continually feed them information which is recorded in their brain.

Just a bit more before we get to the Coherence Principle…. let me tell you a bit about how the brain takes in information.

Picture showing that processing information goes from the Multimedia presentation, enters the brain through sensory memory of ears and eyes, into working memory, and finally to long-term memory.
Multimedia goes through “memory stores” – Sensory Memory, Working Memory, and Long-Term Memory.

In reality all learners have “memory stores.”  When a multimedia presentation is shared, learners have two channels, which exist for gaining information via the sensory memory. The words and pictures that go through here are only seen and heard for just a brief moment and are not stored.  

From here the words and pictures go into working memory, which is where these items are consciously held and knowledge is processed.  Working Memory isn’t unlimited, and generally 4 to 7 “buckets” of information can be processed at one time, and for just a short time (which is why, when my wife gives me a grocery list of more than 3 items, she has to write it down!)

The brain’s storeroom of information is long term memory.  Here is where lots of information is held for long periods of time, and where new knowledge mixes with prior knowledge.  The big challenge in teaching is to get information from working memory into long term memory!!

Coherence Principle

Now, let’s talk about the Coherence Principle.  In this principle, “people learn better when extraneous material (interesting but irrelevant words or pictures, or sounds or music, or unneeded words and symbols) are taken out of a multimedia presentation.” (Mayer, 2014) 

In this principle, we want to only include essential material.  So if the subject is the life span of pacific salmon, but includes information on humpback whale predation, with awesome pictures of whales breaching, it would be interesting and might really spice up the lesson, but it also would take away from the actual subject and the learning outcome of that lesson.  This extraneous information takes up room in those 4-7 buckets of working memory, leaving less capacity for the essential information that is needed to be processed.

OK, what if we add music and sounds to the lesson?  This would also be a bad idea. Although it might make the multimedia lesson more interesting, having spoken text and then including other sounds, could actually overload the auditory channel. Those extraneous sounds compete with the text for the limited “working memory” processing capacity.

Graphics and cations, and also text on how a lightning storm forms.
What do you think? When you look at this example, the pictures have captions, and also include text that elaborates on each step. Do you think this would bring about the best learning results? (Mayer, 2009)

One last example is the one above – Wouldn’t a student learn more if you have graphics with captions, and text that explains the process??  Actually, the answer is no! In fact the end result might be worse than just having the Graphics and Captions as shown below.

This is because:

  1. learners process the key words in the captions,
  2. the graphics are presented in order, and
  3. the captions are near the pictures.

The clarity and concise graphics and captions, as seen below, will bring as good, and possibly better learning results, than the example above does!

Graphics and Captions showing how a lightning storm forms
“A concise presentation allows the learner to build a coherent mental representation.” (Mayer, 2009)

Why would students perform better with just graphics and captions?  It’s because the graphics and captions contain the essential information the student needs.  The large amounts of text actually contain extraneous information that the student does not necessarily need to know.  It’s always better to take out the unneeded words. Remember to give the students only the “need to know” information and take out all the “nice to know” information.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s FLC.  Next week we dive into the Signaling Principle!!  Have a great weekend, and thanks for reading!

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed.). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

Mayer, R. (Ed.). (2014). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.