Instructional design

Learning design principles 101



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Learning design principles 101

One of my favourite books about eLearning is Clark & Mayer’s eLearning and the Science of Instruction. This book explores the key principles that learning designers need to apply to grab the attention of our increasingly distracted and unengaged learners.

So, to help my fellow community member on their eLearning journey, I thought I’d share with you the six learning design principles that Clark & Mayer say aid essential processing.


What is essential processing?

Essential processing is defined as:

“The mental effort related to focusing on the core learning material, making sense of it and transferring it to long term memory”

So, in simple terms: it’s the mental effort involved with learning, understanding and remembering content. As such, these principles ensure your course is easy to understand for learners, and that the course itself is not distracting in any way.


Multimedia principle

The first principle is the multimedia principle – and its one everyone in the learning design industry knows. Even if you don’t know that you know it.

The multimedia principle tells us that using text and graphics together, is far superior to using texts or graphics on their own.


Pre-training principle

The pre-training principle does what it says on the tin. It involves training your learners, and ensuring they know the key names, terms and characteristics used in your eLearning, ahead of the learning.

For example, defining key terms at the start of a course could aid learner comprehension, and prevents them becoming distracted by trying to define key terms themselves.

This is a great example of the pre training principle in action:

Before the pre-training exercise I’m sure we’d all call this machine a collective ‘microscope’ but after the pre-training exercise, learners would know the names of the different element of the microscope.


Segmenting principle (or chunking)

We speak about chunking a lot in the eLearning industry. But it’s a hot topic in all forms of digital design (ask your marketing team, I’m sure they’ve heard of it too!)

Again, the segmenting principle is self-explanatory, it says we should break up the content into smaller, easier to digest chunks so that our learners can read it more easily.

For example this image on how to use a hammer breaks the process into four segments:


Modality principle

The modality principle states that using graphics & narration outweighs using graphics, narration and text. For example, if you have a complex diagram, describing it through voice over, rather than on-screen text would benefit the learner. This ensures the learner has time to focus on the diagram, rather than switching their attention between text and the image.


Personalisation principle

The personalisation principle states that the style of language used has an impact on learning outcomes. Using a conversational tone, for example talking directly to the learner as ‘you’, and referring to yourself as ‘we’, creates a relaxed, conversational feel throughout your learning.

For example:

“Individuals should be able to answer what their greatest strengths are outside of an interview”


“Outside of the job interview, how do you answer the “What are your greatest strengths?” question? Can you put aside rehearsed answers? Do you really know where you add value?


Embodiment principle

Finally, the embodiment principle is having characters onscreen which perform humanlike gestures. This helps the learners concentrate, and relate the content – and in turn, remember more of the information taught. However, your ‘agents’ do not necessarily need to be, or represent humans, but should have human actions – such as facial expressions and eye-gazes.


I hope this blog is useful as a round up of the key learning design principles. If you have any questions – or have any examples of using these in your courses, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!