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E-Learning Theory

Haixia He


E-learning theory is built on cognitive science principles that demonstrate how the use and design of educational technology can enhance effective learning (David, 2015; Wang 2012). The theory was developed from a set of principles created based on Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, Van Merriënboer & Paas, 2019). According to David (2015), Cognitive Load Theory is “the amount of mental effort involved in working memory” (n.p.) during a task and can be categorized into germane, intrinsic, and extraneous effort. Since the working memory has limited capacity and the brain will suffer from overload if learners are presented with too much information, causing inefficient learning, it is essential to balance these three types of load to promote learning efficiency (Clark, Nguyen & Sweller, 2005). Based on this, Mayer, Sweller and Moreno (2015) established 11 design principles that were created to reduce extraneous cognitive load and manage germane and intrinsic loads at an appropriate level for learners using technology (Mayer, Sweller & Moreno, 2015; Wikipedia, 2020). These types of cognitive load, along with design principles and technology, comprise e-learning theory. E-learning theory belongs to the grand theory of Connectivism because it emphasizes how technologies can be used and designed to create new learning opportunities and to promote effective learning.

Previous Studies

Multimedia learning is one specific principle of e-learning theory, and it contends that deeper learning can be promoted using two formats among audio, visual, and text instead of one or three (Mayer, Sweller & Moreno, 2015). Previous studies relevant to e-learning theory have provided evidence that multimedia design principles can foster effective learning (Mayer & Moreno, 2003; Moreno & Mayer, 2007). For example, Mayer (1997) conducted several reviews of multimedia learning and found that multimedia instruction was effective. To be specific, Mayer (1997) reviewed eight studies on whether multimedia instruction was effective and found that students who were given a presentation with both verbal and visual explanations had a 75% higher median score for creative solutions on problem-solving transfer tests than students who experienced only verbal explanation. Ten studies reviewed by Mayer (1997) found that students showed scored more than 50% over the median on creative solution transfer tests when verbal and visual descriptions were concurrently employed.

Personalization is also an essential principle of e-learning theory. This principle suggests that presenting words in a conversational and informal style can help enhance effective learning (Mayer et al., 2015). Several studies have shown that personalization can be effective in learning. For example, Kartal’s (2010) study investigated the effectiveness of the design principle of personalization with 89 college students in an Istanbul university in Turkey by testing their computerized instructional content in a personalized informal style, personalized formal style, and neutral-formal style. The results showed that the amount of learning increased when the language style was formal and conversational.

Another study conducted by Kurt (2011) showed consistent results with Kartal’s (2010) study. Kurt (2011) examined the personalization effect with multimedia material in a formal style with 22 students and conversational style with 23 students. Using an achievement test, a cognitive load scale for both groups, and a questionnaire for the personalized group, Kurt found that students’ cognitive load scores in the personalized group were significantly different from and better than those in the non-personalized group. Besides, students in the personalized group said that the conversational style applied in the multimedia software inspired them to learn and they felt that a real human was talking to them. In addition, students showed a preference for multimedia materials.

Several other studies have also shown other design principles of e-learning theory to be effective. Some researchers studied the modality principle, which claims that the use of visuals accompanied by audio narration instead of on-screen text is more effective for learning (Mayer et al., 2015). For example, Moreno (2006) conducted a meta-analysis on modality effects. The results revealed significant learning benefits due to the modality principle across different media.

As can be seen from the above discussion, applying the principles of e-learning theory with its design principles can promote effective learning. Therefore, e-learning theory can be useful for teachers to design effective courses and for researchers to understand how effective learning with and through technology can happen.

Model of E-learning Theory

The model in Figure 1 demonstrates that concepts of three types of cognitive load and eleven empirical principles compose two constructs: cognitive load and design principles. These two constructs then combine to lead to the proposition of e-learning theory.

A model of e-learning theory based on Mayer et al (2015)

Concepts and Constructs

As noted previously, the three cognitive loads are intrinsic, germane, and extraneous based on the amount of mental effort. Intrinsic load is “the mental work imposed by the complexity of the content in your lessons and is primarily determined by your instructional goals” (Clark et al., 2005, p.9). Germane load is “mental work imposed by instructional activities that benefit the instructional goal” (Clark et al., 2005, p.11). Extraneous load is “the mental work that is irrelevant to the learning goal and consequently wastes limited mental resources” (Clark et al, 2005, p.12). Together these form the construct “cognitive load.”

E-learning theory is also composed of principles that can be integrated into instructional design; they that demonstrate “how educational technology can be used and designed to promote effective learning” (Wang, 2012, p.346). The eleven principles of the model that can promote effective learning are:

  1. Multimedia principle: Using two formats of audio, visual, and text instead of using one or three.

  2. Modality principle: Explaining visual content with audio narration instead of on-screen text.

  3. Coherence principle: Avoiding irrelevant videos and audio.

  4. Contiguity principle: Aligning relevant information to corresponding pictures concurrently.

  5. Segmenting principle: Managing complicated content by breaking a lesson into small parts.

  6. Signaling principle: Offering signals for the narration, such as arrows, circles, and highlights.

  7. Learner control principle: Allowing the learner to control their learning pace.

  8. Personalization principle: Presenting words in a conversational and informal style.

  9. Pre-training principle: Providing descriptions or explanations for key concepts in a lesson before the main procedure of that lesson.

  10. Redundancy principle: Presenting visuals with audio or on-screen text but not both.

  11. Expertise effect: Considering that design principles may have a different effect on learners with various amounts of prior knowledge.  (Clark & Mayer, 2016; Mayer, 2003; Mayer & Moreno, 2003; Mayer et al., 2015)

Together, these eleven principles form the construct “design principles.”

Overall, the ideas of cognitive load and design principles can be integrated to reduce extraneous cognitive load and manage germane and intrinsic loads by making it easier for learners’ brains to handle the amount of information and processing that they must do during instructional tasks.


Based on the concepts and constructs, the model ends with the proposition, that if teachers design principled tasks with educational technologies that reduce extraneous cognitive load and manage germane and intrinsic load at appropriate levels for students, they can learn effectively (Mayer, Sweller & Moreno, 2015).

Possible Ways to Use the Model

Several possible ways exist for using this model in research and practice. For example, researchers can use this model to better understand how design principles can be integrated in instruction to promote effective learning. Researchers can also conduct studies using the e-learning theory model to describe the design principles in learning contexts. In addition, this model can also help researchers address the following topics:

  • How research-based e-learning methodologies can be used to create an effective e-learning course.

  • How teachers can minimize extraneous load and manage intrinsic load to help effective learning.

  • Which design principles could contribute most to effective student learning.

Furthermore, teachers could apply the e-learning theory model in their classrooms to create effective e-learning courses. For example, teachers can help students manage their intrinsic cognitive load by splitting the content so that students can acquire knowledge step by step (Clark et al., 2005). Teachers can also scaffold students with small portions of new content gradually so that students can control their learning in a self-paced e-learning environment (Clark et al., 2005). Further, teachers can use basic digital communication tools with visuals, text, and audio to demonstrate learning content in ways that can help to reduce students’ intrinsic cognitive loads. In addition, teachers can apply effective graphics, audio, and text to minimize redundant content, concentrate on important content, and offer performance assistance to increase external memory. More examples of how teachers can apply e-learning theory in classrooms include:

  • Reducing extraneous cognitive load by avoiding irrelevant audio or complex visuals to describe complicated text (the coherence principle)

  • Managing intrinsic cognitive load by segmenting content into small parts and using pretraining to teach concepts and facts separately (the segmenting principle).

  • Fostering germane cognitive load by adding practice activities and relevant visuals (the modality principle) (Clark & Mayer, 2016).

There is no need to use all eleven principles to enhance students’ learning. Specific design principles can be used in different situations, depending on teachers’ instructional objectives and students’ learning objectives.


E-learning theory is about designing educational technology use to promote effective learning by reducing extraneous cognitive load and managing germane and intrinsic loads at students’ appropriate levels. It can be challenging for teachers to design tasks at an appropriate level for students; the e-learning theory model can help teachers understand how cognitive load can be categorized and combined with design principles to make effective learning with technology happen.


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Clark, R. C., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2005). Efficiency in learning: Evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. Pfeiffer.

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E-Learning Theory by Joy Egbert and Mary Roe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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