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Jul 2010

e-Learning and the Science of Instruction | Book reviews

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Shaping the future of learning

Jo Cheeseman takes another look at the classic, all spruced up with a second edition.

This is the second edition of the original classic by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer. I have to confess up-front that I didn’t read the first edition so I can’t make a direct comparison, but apparently this second edition offers a thorough revision of the original, updating the research referred to in all the chapters, as well as two new chapters and a CD with multimedia examples. The two new chapters cover simulations and games, and the segmenting and sequencing of e-learning content.

Seven is the magic number

What Clark and Mayer have carried out is a thorough review of all the available published research around elearning and multimedia that has appeared over the last 25 years, including research carried out by them. From the conclusions derived by the research they have produced a series of principles and best practices that anyone designing elearning should consider and apply. So for instance, the Contiguity Principle which is about aligning words on screen to the corresponding graphics and why this is important (to reduce the cognitive load of the learner, i.e. to make it easier for them to process the information).

Altogether there are seven main principles, with a chapter each. As well as these main principles they cover a number of other topics including: leveraging examples, the use of practice, learning as a virtual group, who should be in control (the learner or the program), building thinking skills, and games and simulations. Once again Clark and Mayer provide us with a whole set of principles to apply when using these approaches.

What’s this about learning by doing?

Each chapter explains the principle and then provides the psychological reasons for the principle and also evidence (i.e. research) for why the principle should be applied. No book by learning experts would be complete if the authors didn’t get the reader to do some thinking as well just reading, and Clark and Mayer don’t disappoint. Each chapter has a Design Dilemma which follows an elearning team at a company as they make decisions about how their piece of elearning should be designed. At the beginning of the chapter you are presented with the dilemma, which relates to the principle being discussed, and you have to decide what the team should do. Later in the chapter you get feedback on their decision and the outcomes. I enjoyed this threaded scenario and found that it did help to bring the theories alive. They also end each chapter with a section on what isn’t known about that particular principle – so lining up some tasty new research topics for the academics out there.

What I like about this book is that Clark and Mayer have done an awful lot of hard work for the reader in reviewing all the literature and summarising it. If you’re short on time and just want to know what the principles and best practices are so that you can get on and use them, then you don’t actually need to read the sections on evidence and psychological reasons – just trust that Clark and Mayer have got it right! They also provide a handy, downloadable guidelines check-list covering all of the principles and best practices that you can print out to evaluate your own elearning designs against. The final chapter of the book is all about how to apply these guidelines. In addition to the guidelines they provide a CD with good and bad examples of how the principles have or haven’t been applied in some real elearning. However, frustratingly for me I couldn’t get the elearning on the CD to work despite having installed the necessary software. It did feel a little 'old school' using a CD and I couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t set up a nice website where they could also make use of all the social community tools available – hmm, maybe that’s what they’re doing for the third edition.

Overall I would say that this is an excellent book which is well written and structured. Anyone involved in the design or implementation of e-learning should get a copy of this book and read the bits that explain the principles and how to apply them. We’re all busy people, so don’t worry about reading the evidence sections unless you’ve got some spare hours to fill. Then print off the guidelines and test some of your own elearning to see how you got on. Even better when you’re designing your next elearning module, have the guidelines by your side so that you can check them as you go along.

Personally I thought that some of the principles were a bit obvious – and most good instructional designers have probably been applying them already for years. However, it’s reassuring to know that there have been lots of research projects carried out that now prove an approach is correct, whereas before we had to rely on intuitively knowing that it was correct.

If you read the first edition and you’re wondering whether to invest in the second, I’m probably not the best person to comment (remember when I said I didn’t read the first edition?). However, I get the impression that a great deal of updates and additions have been incorporated – so I think the answer is ‘yes!’. Go get yourself a copy.

Get it here: e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning



Shaping the future of learning

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