Less is more…

I’ve been writing a lot about cognitive architecture and instructional design of late (here, here and here). Arguably, the goal of instruction is to help students be able to explain information that they’ve retained and to transfer this to solve problems. Here I want to discuss a method of instructional design which may be highly effective in supporting learners with not only their retention of information, but also transfer.


According to Mayer et al (1996):

‘a common instructional practice is to provide a lengthy verbal explanation, such as a textbook passage or a classroom lecture…[in doing this]… instructors may believe…[that this]… fulfills their responsibility to provide information to the learner…[however]… this practice is not very efficient for many students.’

In their work, Mayer and colleagues conducted three experiments with a group of college students to explore the effectiveness of different instructional approaches to share a scientific explanations:

Experiment 1: Students read a summary that contained a sequence of short captions with simple illustrations depicting the main steps in the process of lightning. Students recalled these steps and solved transfer problems as well as or better than students who received the full text along with the summary or the full text alone.

Experiment 2: Taking away the illustrations or the captions from the summary reduced its effectiveness.

Experiment 3: Adding additional text to the summary reduced its effectiveness.

From the results of the experiments, it was concluded that multimedia learning that is concise, coherent, and coordinated, aids explanation recall and problem solving transfer. It is suggested that the reason for this is simply because summaries reduce the load on the cognitive system, enabling learners to carry out the cognitive processes necessary for meaningful learning, similar to that of dual coding.


In layman’s terms, an effective method of instruction is to provide learners with a storyboard of a process that contains both visual and text information, being mindful of the three ‘C’s:

  1. Conciseness: only using a few images and sentences in the storyboard.
  2. Coherence: Images and sentences should be presented in a cause-and-effect sequence
  3. Coordination: Images should be presented next to its corresponding sentences


So, I asked a colleague of mine, Mike Tyler to trial this approach and see how he found  and here’s the result…

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and say that sound instructional design should look a certain way, but there are implications in doing this. We know the opportunity of using resources like the above is good, but at what cost? I asked Mike a few questions following his work to untangle this a little.

1. How long did it take you to produce? 
Mike’s response: ‘It took a couple of hours… I used PowerPoint to make the pictures then grouped them, saved each one as a png and imported each into Word. Finally I saved it all as a pdf. Basically, it was a full-on mission, as they say! I’d do it by hand next time and scan / upload.’
2. In producing it, how did you know what to put where and what information to omit/include?
Mike’s response: ‘I included only what was minimally necessary to make sense of the process. i.e. osteobalsts, osteoclasts, etc). I had able Level 3 learners in mind.’
3. Do you think you will use this when teaching the process in future? Why?
Mike’s response: ‘I will probably give this a go in the future. I might try it for Anatomy & Physiology this coming term, maybe in a lesson on the energy systems.’
I’m going to be following up with Mike once he’s used this with his learners and will keep you posted by updating this post, but in the meantime, why not have a go yourself?
With thanks to Mike Tyler for this collaboration.

3 thoughts on “Less is more…

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