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Book Review: 'E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning (Essential Knowledge Resource)'
Third Edition by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer

By Laura Layton-James / January 2012

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There has been a huge surge in eLearning delivery during the past few years. Organizations are faced with ever-greater pressures, and eLearning is seen as a panacea to deliver learning more efficiently to a larger number of people more quickly. According to Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, the authors of E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, the rise has been some 36.5 percent since their last publication.

However, transferring classroom courses to online delivery isn't as simple as it might initially seem. In our eagerness to meet the needs of the organization, the needs of the learners are often overlooked. Even so, the trend for producing more efficient ways of delivering learning is set to continue. It also means more and more organizations are looking to produce eLearning in house. If this is the case, in order to leverage the benefits of eLearning we'll need some guidance. And for that we do not have to look further than Clark and Mayer's E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, now in its third edition.

Not only does it include evidence-based research undertaken since the second edition, but the authors set the reader challenges by way of scenarios to consider before they discuss each theory in full. Clark and Mayer then bring us back to the scenario to allow us to reassess our initial thoughts. This is an excellent way to start us thinking about our own practices should we be experienced instructional designers, or allow us to make an educated guess if we're not.

What I love about this book (and there's a lot to love) is that the authors don't just quote research and preach about what good eLearning should be; they provide us with the tools and examples we need to begin putting them into practice. It's chock-full of checklists for quality controlling our eLearning. At the end of each chapter, the authors summarize the key points with a helpful checklist that, when collated, will act as an invaluable job aid for anyone wishing to design the best eLearning solution for their needs.

For those looking to influence key stakeholders who may question your authority as an eLearning designer, this book will give you valuable evidence your stakeholders frequently demand. Not only does the book provide us with evidence on what works best, but it complements this with when and how it works.

For those who are experienced in learning design but new to eLearning, this book helps to ensure learning is transferred effectively from the more traditional modes of delivery to an online environment.

A Taster

Without spoiling your enjoyment when you read the book (and I recommend you do) I thought I'd give you a little teaser.

Clark and Mayer begin by defining eLearning as "instruction delivered on a digital device such as a computer or mobile device that is intended to support learning." This is so important to do especially when talking with stakeholders. Often the perception of eLearning is self-study tutorials produced in an authoring tool, when there are many more, and possibly more appropriate, options to choose from.

We hear that research confirms "learning in an online environment can be as effective as learning in the classroom." It all boils down to the quality of the instructional design. Students in well-designed and well-implemented online courses learn significantly more and more effectively than those who attended poorly planned and poorly delivered online courses. This is good news for everyone venturing into the world of eLearning. However, a word of caution from the authors: "the success of a learning solution is not the medium chosen but the instructional design."

Clark and Mayer propose four unique features which they call "promises":

  1. Customized training. Tailored to suit roles, experience and needs.
  2. Engagement in learning. Exploring more specifically the difference between behavioral and psychological engagement and determining which result in the highest learning.
  3. Multimedia. Using an appropriate combination of text, audio, motion and video. Here we discover evidence of recent brain research that helps establish what combination works best and what actually depresses learning.
  4. Accelerating expertise through scenarios. Simulating as closely as possible realistic working environments and practices to help learners experience situations they need to prepare for.

These promises are explored in detail. Backed by strong research, the authors discuss how too many media rich elements at once should be avoided. On the other hand, not using an appropriate mix that supports each other reduces learning.

They emphasize how learning design should always link strongly to organizational goals and to concentrate on building eLearning to develop skills in the learner to support those goals.

Readers are recommended to build structure and guidance into eLearning rather than give learners total free range and form their own path. However, we also hear how we should cater for those more experienced learners who may need less rigidity. Clark and Mayer share years of research to make sure we can strike the right balance.

The authors recommend differentiating between inform goals and perform goals when beginning to design eLearning, as these will dictate the type of architecture we will use. Further, they talk about performing tasks as "near transfer" that will build transfer of learning for immediate application (where the steps covered in the content are exactly the same as on the job) and "far transfer," which have a more strategic application (where "learners have to apply judgment").

Throughout the book, we also discover the following when considering visual and interface design:

  • How poor design practices can overload working memory allowing little or no room for processing and what we can do to avoid this
  • Using animations versus static illustrations and what works best when
  • How our brains process audio, text and visual elements and what combinations work best and why
  • Why explaining visuals with audio OR text and not both "hurts learning"
  • The effect extraneous material i.e. music, sound effects and decorative images has on our learning
  • When and how to give the right balance of learner control through navigation and interface design

When considering learning design, we discover:

  • What activities ensure "deeper processing" and, therefore, better transfer to the job rather than "shallow processing" activities, and differentiating between the two
  • How, when and where to provide feedback for effective learning to take place
  • How to build thinking skills in your audience through eLearning
  • Why building collaborative opportunities into our solutions is important and when best to do this
  • How simulations and games help effective learning take place, and why spicing up dull content with "fun" games, such as Jeopardy, should be avoided

Clark and Mayer conclude their book with important advice about how to apply their guidelines. They stress that "a variety of factors shape eLearning decisions," which might include culture, technical infrastructure, politics, time and budgets. Their guidelines are exactly that—guidelines—and they may have to be adapted to suit our unique situations.

Clark and Mayer summarize the guidelines in a helpful but comprehensive checklist collated from each chapter. And if that wasn't enough, they also offer three different sample eLearning examples where we can see how some of their guidelines can be applied.

Finally, after reading this book, it is clear that careful consideration must be given to our audience before we can embark on developing our specific architecture. It also reaffirms that rolling out "sheep-dip" style eLearning just doesn't work.

The Verdict

If you've never read the previous editions of E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, you'll find the evidence and guidelines provided invaluable. If you're an advocate of Clark and Mayer's work, their new research will add to your arsenal of eLearning tools.

For novices in eLearning and instructional design, this book may be a little hard going. But it will be worth persevering with it because it is unlikely you'll find a more comprehensive grounding. For experts in eLearning and instructional design, this book provides much-needed evidence in a dynamic field.

E-Learning and the Science of Instruction is a must have addition to any eLearning designer's bookshelf (or Kindle).

About the Author

Laura Layton-James is a full time Learning Consultant with in the UK. She works with many large organizations in the UK helping them develop and deliver effective learning solutions in the traditional classroom and online. She specializes in blended learning and eLearning, helping people adapt and enhance their classroom skills to effectively deliver in an online environment. Laura blogs at Purple Learning and can be found on Twitter as @purplelearning.


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