E-Learning Theory (Mayer, Sweller, Moreno)

E-learning theory consists of cognitive science principles that describe how electronic educational technology can be used and designed to promote effective learning.


The researchers started from an understanding of cognitive load theory to establish the set of principles that compose e-learning theory. Cognitive load theory refers to the amount of mental effort involved in working memory, and these amounts are categorized into three categories: germane, intrinsic, and extraneous[1].

Germane cognitive load describes the effort involved in understanding a task and accessing it or storing it in long-term memory (for example, seeing an essay topic and understanding what you are being asked to write about). Intrinsic cognitive load refers to effort involved in performing the task itself (actually writing the essay). Extraneous cognitive load is any effort imposed by the way that the task is delivered (having to find the correct essay topic on a page full of essay topics).

Key Concepts

Mayer, Moreno, Sweller, and their colleagues established e-learning design principles that are focused on minimizing extraneous cognitive load and introducing germane and intrinsic loads at user-appropriate levels[2][3][4][5][6]. These include the following empirically established principles:

Multimedia principle (also called the Multimedia Effect)

Using any two out of the combination of audio, visuals, and text promote deeper learning than using just one or all three.

Modality principle

Learning is more effective when visuals are accompanied by audio narration versus onscreen text. There are exceptions for when the learner is familiar with the content, is not a native speaker of the narration language, or when printed words are the only things presented on screen. Another exception to this is when the learner needs to use the material as reference and will be going back to the presentation repeatedly.

Coherence principle

The less that learners know about the presentation content, the more they will be distracted by unrelated content. Irrelevant video, music, graphics, etc. should be cut out to reduce cognitive load that might happen through learning unnecessary content. Learners with some prior knowledge, however, might have increased motivation and interest with unrelated content.

    Contiguity principle

    Learning is more effective when relevant information is presented closely together. Relevant text should be placed close to graphics, and feedback and responses should come closely to any answers that the learner gives.

    Segmenting principle

    More effective learning happens when learning is segmented into smaller chunks. Breaking down long lessons and passages into shorter ones helps promote deeper learning.

    Signaling principle

    Using arrows or circles, highlighting, and pausing in speech are all effective methods of signaling important aspects of the lesson. It is also effective to end a lesson segment after releasing important information.

    Learner control principle

    For most learners, being able to control the rate at which they learn helps them learn more effectively. Having just play and pause buttons can help more than having an array of controls (back, forward, play, pause). Advanced learners may benefit from having the lesson play automatically with the ability to pause when they choose.

    Personalization principle

    A tone that is more informal and conversational, conveying more of a social presence, helps promote deeper learning. Beginning learners may benefit from a more polite tone of voice, while learners with prior knowledge may benefit from a more direct tone of voice. Computer characters can help reinforce content by narrating the lesson, pointing out important features, or illustrating examples for the learner.

    Pre-training principle

    Introducing key content concepts and vocabulary before the lesson can aid deeper learning. This principle seems to apply more to low prior knowledge learners versus high prior knowledge learners.

    Redundancy principle

    Having graphics explained by both audio narration and on-screen text creates redundancy. The most effective method is to use either audio narration or on-screen text to accompany visuals.

    Expertise effect

    Instructional methods that are helpful to low prior knowledge learners may not be helpful at all, or may even be detrimental, to high prior knowledge learners.

Additional Resources and References



  1. Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.
  2. Mayer, R. E. (1997). Multimedia learning: Are we asking the right questions?.Educational psychologist, 32(1), 1-19.
  3. Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. (2007). Interactive multimodal learning environments. Educational Psychology Review, 19(3), 309-326.
  4. Low, R., & Sweller, J. (2005). The modality principle in multimedia learning.The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning, 147, 158.
  5. Mayer, R. E. (2003). Elements of a science of e-learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 29(3), 297-313.
  6. Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. John Wiley & Sons.