Analysis of Coherence Principle

What is the Coherence Principle and its most important constraints/criteria?

The Coherence Principle is one of the principles of the cognitive theory of multimedia learning developed by Richard Mayer which is aimed at reducing extraneous processing in multimedia learning.

The overarching theme of the Coherence Principle is that people better understand an explanation from a multimedia lesson containing essential material (concise lesson) than from a multimedia lesson containing essential material and additional material (expanded lesson) (Mayer, 2010).

Three (3) hypotheses have been used to justify the Coherence Principle:

  1. “Learning is improved when interesting but irrelevant words and pictures are excluded from a multimedia presentation.”
  2. “Learning is improved when interesting but irrelevant sounds and music are excluded from a multimedia presentation.”
  3. “Learning is improved when unneeded words and symbols are eliminated from a multimedia presentation.”

These three hypotheses provide us with general guidelines that should be followed by creators of multimedia content for learning also called e-Lessons. These guidelines are:

  1. Avoid e-Lessons with extraneous graphics
  2. Avoid e-Lessons with extraneous audio
  3. Avoid e-Lessons with extraneous words

Mayer (2010) provides the rationale for the Coherence Principle that “extraneous material competes for cognitive resources in working memory and can divert attention from the important material, disrupt the process of organizing the material, and prime the learner to integrate the material with an appropriate theme.”

The known constraint identified for the Coherence principle is that it may be particularly important for learners with low-working-memory capacity or low domain knowledge. This is useful to creators of e-Lessons who seek to cater for diverse learning abilities.

Describe and/or include one example of successful and one example of unsuccessful attempts to apply the Coherence Principle in actual instruction and training you have experienced, especially as it might be implemented in PowerPoint-based instruction and training.

Have you ever seen this principle violated or abused? Identify the violations, including citations as needed from your textbook.

PowerPoint has become an almost indelible teaching aid amongst educators. Several design templates available in the versions of PowerPoint released between years 1995 through 2000 allowed users to create colourful presentations.

It was commonplace to see textual content and graphical content appearing on the same slide. As a means to allow PowerPoint to serve as a presentation and handout notes to learners, slides were often overloaded with textual content.

The novelty of animations and sound effect often led to an overuse of these features as students including myself were fascinated at the power of PowerPoint. However, the novelty of PowerPoint wore off and continued use of the dazzling features of animations and sounds became a distraction to learning.

In this regard, I have experience the worst of training during the early part of the 21st century with PowerPoint. Today (year 2016), the default templates available in the most recent versions of PowerPoint are less confusing/cluttered and the colour schemes are well-designed.

Trainers/Presenters have followed suit and content used on PowerPoint slides normally follow the basic guidelines for creating PowerPoint presentations.

No longer are animations and sound effects the primary focus of the presentation since most presenters recognize now that PowerPoint is to be used as an aid to presenting or teaching and not as a replacement for presenting or teaching.

There is therefore greater adherence to the coherence principle as presenters/trainers have noticeably made an effort when using PowerPoint to “limit extraneous graphics, sounds and words” as suggested by Richard Mayer.

Discuss the relationship of the Coherence Principle to other Multimedia Learning Principles examined thus far in your readings.

The theory of multimedia learning is based on three (3) key assumptions:

  • Dual channels – humans process separate channels for processing visual and auditory information
  • Limited capacity – humans are limited in the amount of information that they can process in each channel at one time
  • Active processing – humans engage in active learning by attending to relevant incoming information, organizing selected information into coherent mental representations, and integrating mental representations with other knowledge.

These assumptions relate to the mental effort (cognitive processing) required for learning to occur efficiently. The main guidelines to be followed from these assumptions are to:

  • Reduce extraneous cognitive processing
  • Foster generative cognitive processing
  • Manage essential cognitive processing

The Coherence Principle adheres to the guideline of reducing extraneous cognitive processing primarily by avoiding the use of extraneous material from multimedia lessons.

Other principles such as the redundancy principle, spatial contiguity principle and modality principle also adhere to these guidelines.

With respect to the Redundancy Principle the guideline of managing essential cognitive processing is adhered to as it states that people learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration and printed text.

The Spatial contiguity principle states that students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.

The rationale behind this principle is that when corresponding words and picture are near to each other on the page or screen, learners do not have to use cognitive resources to visually search the page or screen, and learners are more likely to be able to hold them both in working memory at the same time.

Similar to the coherence principle, the spatial contiguity principle is aimed at reducing extraneous cognitive processing and managing essential cognitive processing.

The Modality principle states that people learn more deeply from pictures and spoken words than from pictures and printed words. Therefore, if a multimedia lesson contains pictures and printed words, an overload can be caused in the visual system. The guideline of managing essential cognitive processing is therefore applicable with the modality principle.

In some multimedia lessons, it may not be possible to avoid all extraneous material. In this case, the signaling principle should be followed. This is done by inserting cues in the multimedia lesson to direct the learner’s attention toward the essential material.

Discuss the relationship of the Coherence Principle to fundamental theories of psychology as described by Clark & Mayer in your textbook.

The Coherence principle emanates from the theory of multimedia learning which is based on cognitive psychology of learning and is centered around the theory of knowledge construction.

Knowledge construction posits that learners build mental representations based on what is presented and what they already know (Mayer, 2010).

Arguments against the Coherence principle are often presented using arousal theory – the idea that students learn better when they are emotionally aroused by material (Clark & Mayer, 2011). This is a theory for motivation where the addition of interesting but irrelevant material can serve the purpose of energizing learners so that they pay more attention and learn more overall.

Although arousal theory seems plausible, its genesis is in the behaviorist psychology of learning developed by B.F Skinner and is centered around knowledge transmission which asserts that learning involves taking information from the teacher and putting it into the learner.

The Coherence Principle does not support the arousal theory since it (coherence principle) makes the assumption that seductive details serving to arouse learners may interfere with the process of knowledge construction and reduce learning.

What do you personally like or dislike about this principle? Present a coherent, informed opinion and explain why you hold this opinion.

Are there any limitations or qualifications of the principle (caveats) which the authors did not consider and, if so, what are they?

The Cognitive theory of multimedia learning from which the Coherence Principle has been developed continues to evolve in terms of research. Since it is concerned with the brain – one of the most complex processes to understand about humans, there will be conditions that may prove or disprove the coherence principle.

The guideline of the coherence principle to avoid extraneous audio, words and pictures in order to facilitate efficient processing in working memory seems sensible, however, some learners may not be motivated enough to learn with such a focused approach.

Many lessons/instructional plans start with a set induction which seeks to grab learners’ attention and pique their interest for the instructional content to follow. For example, a set induction on how lightning storms develop may show a brief video clip of the fatal destruction and havoc storms have caused.

This may serve as the attention grabber for the students and a means by which they would want to learn how storms are developed and ultimately how they are able to cause this destruction.

Structuring a lesson with ‘needle-point’ focus on the science behind storms may be abstract and not interesting to learners who otherwise have no interest in storms. The set induction in this case is therefore supported by arousal theory.

Furthermore, if the learner is able to see real-world examples of storms and their destruction, it might be a means by which learning by making connections can be facilitated although the lesson is on the science of storms and not its destruction.

In relation to avoiding extraneous audio, an argument can be posited that audio can serve as a means of signaling to learners. If we consider a television production, many sounds are used to evoke emotion and grab the attention of viewers. If such television productions serve the purpose of being educational, they should be categorized as e-lessons and therefore the Coherence principle should apply.

In this case, however, the coherence principle may need to be qualified or further investigated for its applicability. Our reflection as children and observation of children may not support the coherence principle since many television productions in the form of cartoons may contain extraneous audio.

Since the research to prove the Coherence Principle was conducted amongst college-aged students ranging in age from 18 to 22 years old (Clark & Mayer, 2011), further studies should be considered amongst other age demographics to ensure consistency and applicability of the Coherence Principle across all age groups.

Clark, R., & Mayer, R. (2011). e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Mayer, R. E. (2010). Multimedia Learning (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.


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