4. Spatial Contiguity Principle

Last week we learned that Pictures and Narration is better than Pictures and Narration and Text.  But what if you have to have Pictures and written text (no narration).  This week we look into this using the Spatial Contiguity Principle.

The Spatial Contiguity Principle means that you want related words and pictures close together.  Let’s take a look at an example in the video below.

Spacial Contiguity Principle (50 seconds)

We want to avoid having the learner split their attention and then have to mentally integrate what is presented, so instead we need to physically integrate information. When using both text and graphics, this is done by making sure printed words are found as close as possible to their corresponding graphic.

Here are some examples of the Spatial Contiguity Principle:

  • 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.
Picture showing a brain with labels
Keep text close to graphics
  • 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 picture with instructions away from pictures as a bad example.
  • 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.

In applying the Spatial Contiguity Principle we want to design pictures and text in a way that puts little strain on cognitive load.  When we do this it frees up working memory for comprehension and learning.

Thanks for reading the Faculty Learning Corner. Next week is the Temporal Contiguity Principle!!

Mayer, R. (2014). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, Second Edition. New York City: Cambridge University Press.

“The Principle of Spatial Contiguity: European Heart Association.” The Principle of Spatial Contiguity | European Heart Association, 25 Oct. 2017, www.heartassociation.eu/the-principle-of-spatial-contiguity/.