The Coherence Principle

March 25th, 2012

The coherence principle states simple that more is not always better.  Extra elements within an e-learning, distance learning, or presentation does not promote learning.  Extra elements can include words, sounds, images, video, or any other element that is included that does not directly contribute to the objective and content that is supposed to be learned.  For example, background music playing during narration or throughout the presentation can distract the learner and even overload their cognitive processing channels.  Clark and Mayer (2009) state “keep the lesson uncluttered…avoid adding any material that does not support the instructional goal”.  In the case of the coherence principle, studies suggest that extra information; even if it is interesting, detract from learning.  A boring lesson or presentation cannot be made interesting with irrelevant information.

The coherence principle shares a commonality with the other multimedia principles discussed so far in this course.  Those principles include the multimedia principle which states that information should be presented with relevant graphics rather than just words alone, the contiguity principle which requires graphics and other multimedia to be on the same screen or near the text that describes it, the modality principle that states that words should be presented as narration rather than on-screen text, and the redundancy principle that says not to present words as narration and on the screen.  The commonalities that these principles share are in the form of shared goals.  All of these principles have the goal of increasing student learning and decreasing the cognitive load on students.  The ultimate goal is to make the presentations and lessons more effective and less stressful for students to learn what they need to learn.  The coherence principle reminds me of what the author Anton Chekov once said.  He said that if you have a gun in the first act of the play, then it better go off by the end of the play.  Basically, he was talking about unneeded details and props in plays.  There is no need to overload the viewer or reader in the sense of a story with details that do not drive the story forward.  The same principle is expressed in the coherence principle.  Unneeded details lead to confusion and lower learning outcomes.

Cognitive overload can be a serious problem with many lessons and students.  I’ve seen many presentations both in schools and workplaces that have many pictures and music.  For me personally, it was hard to focus on the actual content of the presentation since I was trying to figure out the relationship between the graphics and the content.  I stopped paying attention to the facilitator and let my mind wander.  I’ve also sat through presentations that did not include graphics or sounds.  They were short and somewhat dull looking, but the information was imparted and I understood it on a deeper level.  This makes sense to me and is backed up by the psychology principles.  Students need clarity and singularity of purpose.  I’ve found that students can get overwhelmed easily and distracted easily.  It’s important to keep the information channels focused and clear.  They need to be singular in purpose and present the information that supports the instructional goal.  Students learn in two different channels and the coherence principle helps to keep those channels flowing with important and relevant information and keeps them uncluttered with useless, albeit interesting, information and graphics.

I really like the coherence principle.  It simplifies instructions.  Too many times, I have taken too much time trying to find graphics and images to make my slides look better.  I’ve never felt good about my presentations and now I know why.  Simpler is better.  It makes sense to me.


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2009). E-learning and the science of instruction, proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. Pfeiffer & Co.


Standards Addressed

S1 – Design – Candidates demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to design conditions for learning by applying principles of instructional systems design, message design, instructional strategies, and learner characteristics.

  • 1.2 Message Design – Message design involves planning for the manipulation of the physical form of the message.

S3 – Utilization – Candidates demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to use processes and resources for learning by applying principles and theories of media utilization, diffusion, implementation, and policy-making.

  • 3.1 Media Utilization – Media utilization is the systematic use of resources for learning.


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