Book Review: E-learning and the Science of Instruction by Richard Mayer and Ruth Clark

elearning and science of instructionE-learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth C Clark and Richard E Mayer is a book written to educate instructional designers about best practices for designing effective e-learning courses. This is the fourth edition of the book and it was published in 2016. The audience of the book are those who design, develop, evaluate and consume e-learning and according to the authors, ‘you can use the guidelines in this book to ensure that your courses meet human psychological learning requirements and reflects the most recent research on e-learning methods.

The core purpose of this book is to provide evidence-based guidelines for both self-study or asynchronous and virtual classroom or synchronous e-learning.
This is a large book with 417 pages of reading content. The book has 18 chapters and each chapter is organised in a logical way that contains:

  • Chapter summary
  • The main content
  • Psychological reasons for the principle (in the chapters that explain the e-learning principles)
  • Evidence information (in the chapters that explain the e-learning principles)
  • What we don’t know (in the chapters that contain the e-learning principles)

There are initial chapters describing what e-learning and evidence-based research are and later chapters that outline how to apply the lessons taught In the book.

In addition to the chapters there are sections for:

  • References
  •  A glossary
  • List of table and figures
  • Name index
  • Subject index
  • About the authors

How does the book feel? This is a heavy read given the size of the book and nature of the information which at times can feel technical, but overall it is a very practical book. It took me three attempts, before I finally decided to read it through, and I did wish I read it earlier. The logical structure of the book makes it easier to read and though it’s not colourful, the graphical illustrations, which consist of tables, process diagrams and samples of e-learning pages helps the reader to understand the message being presented. Once I started reading the book, I actually didn’t find it challenging at all and looked forward to reading a portion of it each day. My advice for those who may want to read this book is, don’t rush it, take your time and realise that it’s a book you will have to revisit from time to time, especially if you are involved in e-learning design, development or evaluation.
Following is a brief review of each chapter.

Chapter One: E-learning Promise and Pitfalls

In this chapter e-learning is defined and the question of whether it is a better form of learning is answered. The promises and pitfalls of e-learning are also discussed. Some very useful information on the goals of inform and perform types of e-learning, e-learning architectures and what are effective courses are also discussed.

Chapter Two: How Do People Learn From E-courses?

This is a very interesting chapter which touches on some crucial aspects related to e-learning. It answers some key questions such as:

  • How do people learn?
  • Managing limited cognitive resources during learning
  • How e-learning affect human learning

The authors also include a section on what we don’t know about learning.

Chapter Three: Evidence-based Practice

This chapter deals with an area that a lot of learning and development practitioners might not find particularly interesting, research. I really like the first statement in the chapter – instructional programs should be based on appropriate high-quality research, or what we might simply call good research.

While this might be the least practical of all the chapters (apart from chapter one), it contains information that undergirds all the principle-based chapters in the book. It starts out defining what evidence-based practice is before touching on the following:

  • Approaches to research on instructional effectiveness
  • Experimental comparisons
  • Interpreting research statistics
  • Identifying relevant research
  • Boundary conditions in experimental conditions
  • Practical versus theoretical research
  • What we don’t know about evidence-based research

For me this chapter throws some light on how statistics and data analytics (call it data science if you want) can be used to improve course design and effectiveness.

Chapter Four: Applying the Multimedia Principle – Use Words and Graphics Rather Than Words Alone

This is the first of the principles for effective e-learning design. This principle recommends e-learning courses include words and graphics rather than words alone. While all the chapters discussing the principles have some sections in common (a design dilemma case study, psychological reasons for use and what we don’t know), some of the things you will learn here are the different functions of graphics, how to use graphics to promote learning and a comparison of static graphics and animations. There is also research evidence backing up the principle.

Chapter five: Applying the Contiguity Principle – Align Words to Corresponding Graphics

This principle implies that printed text should be placed next to, or near corresponding graphics. It also states that spoken words or audio should synchronize with corresponding graphics. Here you will read about how this principle may be violated, evidence supporting the principle and what is not yet known about the principle. Also there are a number of visual illustrations that will help you understand how to apply the principle.

Chapter Six: Applying the Modality Principle – Present Words as Audio Narration Rather than On-screen Text

According to the authors, of all the principles presented in the book, this one has the most research evidence. This principle implies that words in e-learning courses are more effective when presented as audio rather than on-screen text. Limitations to this principle are discussed and of course research that supports the efficacy of the principle.

Chapter Seven: Applying The Redundancy Principle – Explain Visuals With Words In Audio Or Text But Not Both

This principle implies that people learn better from concurrent graphics and audio than from concurrent graphics, audio and on-screen text. In other words when we use a graphic explained by both audio and text, the text is redundant. As in previous chapters, the principle is explained, evidence for using it is presented and what is not yet known about it is discussed.

Chapter Eight: Applying The Coherence Principle – Adding Extra Material Can Hurt Learning

While the appropriate use of media elements such as text, audio and graphics can improve learning, there are situations when too much of them can have an adverse impact on learning. The Coherence Principle outlined in this chapter explains how and why. A quote from the chapter that summarises the principle is, “Perhaps our single most important recommendation is to keep lessons uncluttered.” In short, according to the Coherence Principle, you should avoiding any material that does not support the instructional goal.

Chapter Nine: Applying The Personalization And Embodiment Princples – Use Conversational Style, Polite Wording And Human Voice, And virtual Coaches

Which is more effective when designing e-learning, formal or informal language? And is it necessary to use polite wording? What about using on-screen coaches or pedagogical agents? These three questions are answered in this chapter. Some of the key lessons here are:

  • Promoting personalization through conversational style, polite speech and voice quality.
  • What are pedagogical agents, do they improve learning and do they need to look real, sound real and use human-like gestures?

Chapter Ten: Applying The Segmenting And Pertaining Principles – Managing Complexity By Breaking A Lesson Into Parts

Some of the previous principles have dealt with how to prevent learners from being overwhelmed cognitively. This is another principle that helps to do that by breaking lessons into smaller and easier digestible chunks and providing  information to help learners understand complex instructions. This is also the last of the principles discussed in the book.

Chapter Eleven: Engagement In E-learning

I found this chapter very interesting as it explains engagement from a learning perspective. It starts out defining what engagement is and then looks at two types of engagement, psychological and behavioural engagement. Four quadrants are used to show the right balance for engagement between psychological and behavioural activity. I also like the table of eight evidence-based engagement strategies that promote generative learning. I believe the information in this chapter is applicable to learning design beyond e-learning.

Chapter Twelve: Leveraging Examples In E-learning

The title says it, how can examples be used to make e-learning courses more effective .

Chapter Thirteen: Does Practice Make Perfect?

This chapter discusses some evidence for using practice and explains some ways to use it. Particularly, it covers five principles around using practice in courses, which are:

  1. Include sufficient practice to achieve the learning objective.
  2. Require learners to respond in job-realistic ways.
  3. Incorporate effective feedback to learner responses.
  4. Distribute practice among the learning events rather than aggregated in one location.
  5. Apply the multimedia principles reviewed in previous chapters (4 – 10).

Chapter Fourteen: Learning Together Virtually

This Chapter touches on how to leverage technology for collaborative learning. The information in the Chapter answers the following questions:

  • Which types of collaborative assignments most benefit individual learning?
  • What are optimal group sizes, composition, and individual accountability structures for online work?
  • When should you use asynchronous versus synchronous collaboration?
  • Which online features promote good work?

Chapter Fifteen: Who’s In Control?

Here the focus is on the balance of control within e-learning courses. Five principles taught in this chapter are:

  1. Give experienced learners control.
  2. Make important instructional events the default.
  3. Consider alternative forms of learner control.
  4. Give pacing control to all learners.
  5. Offer navigational support in hypermedia environments.

You will also learn about the three types of learner control.

Chapter Sixteen: E-learning To Build Thinking Skills

I’ve never really thought about using e-learning to support thinking skills, but this chapter may have convinced me to think otherwise. The chapter starts out answering a key question, what are thinking skills? It then goes on to debate whether thinking skills can be taught. The rest of the Chapter mostly focuses on three principle for teaching thinking skills which are:

  • Principle 1: focus on explicit teaching of job-relevant thinking skills.
  • Principle 2: design lessons around authentic work, tasks or problems.
  • Principle 3: define job-specific thinking processes.

There is also a section which explains what is not yet known about teaching thinking skills.

Chapter Seventeen: Learning with computer games

This was a chapter I looked forward to reading and the first paragraph certainly caught my attention. It states that, Many strong claims are made about the value of games for promoting learning, including the use of games for adult training. However, in taking an evidence-based approach, we recommend a cautious and careful approach to game-based training because all educational games are not equally effective.

Four questions are answered here and they are:

  1. Do games have a place in the serious business of training?
  2. Which features improve a game’s effectiveness?
  3. Does game playing improve cognitive skills?
  4. Are games more effective than conventional media?

Chapter Eighteen: Applying The guidelines

This is the final chapter and I see it as an appropriate way to close the book. It gives a summary of how to apply the guidelines discussed previously to designing e-learning courses.

This is a big book with lots of information that is very useful and practical. I do believe that some of the principles can also be transferred to other types of training design such as face-to-face training sessions. For every learning designer, this should be a manual you have closely as you will need to consult it often. I suggest you go get your copy now if you haven’t already.

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