You enjoy watching a good animation, right? Moving pictures are hard to resist. But how well do people learn from this format? Possibly less than you might think. When compared to static graphics, animations get mixed reviews as an effective learning medium. But don’t be discouraged. There are ways you can make animations more effective. So there is a happy ending.
Types of Animation for Learning
Any of the animation types listed below could be potentially used for instructional purposes.
- 2D Animation: Creating the illusion of motion by the rapid display of a sequence of static images or frames that minimally differ from each other.
- 3D Animation: Creating the illusion of moving objects rendered from 3D wireframes. Based on mathematical algorithms, the objects can be rotated and moved over time.
- Motion Graphics: Moving graphical elements and text across the screen. This is what we create with certain authoring and presentation tools.
- Transformations: This refers to animations that depict changes without movement, such as color transformations (a person blushing) or lines changing from thin to thick (clogged arteries maybe?).
- Stop-motion Animation: This refers to photographs of an object shown in a quick sequence to create the illusion of movement.
Reasons for Using Animation
Educational psychologist Richard Lowe (2004) writes that there are basically two main reasons for using animations for learning—affective and cognitive.
Animations will attract and capture attention because motion is one of the primary attributes of a graphic that makes viewers take notice. Animations can also increase motivation because of their novelty. When they are humorous, they create a positive affect.
One newer approach that may be of interest is the style of the animated information graphic (see an example from the Articulate community). This approach can be used for introductory explanations that may be considered boring otherwise.
Animations that have a cognitive purpose can facilitate learning because they provide more and different information than static graphics. They have the potential to help a learner build a more accurate mental model of a system’s behavior compared to graphics alone (see Schnotz & Rasch, 2005). There are many functions that animation can fulfill, such as:
- Explaining a dynamic process
- Visualizing things that can not be seen with the naked eye
- Simulating a system
- Making abstract concepts more concrete (such as with visual metaphors)
- Visualizing quantitative data
- Improving one’s spatial abilities
- Depicting hosts and agents that explain
- Telling a story
- Creating a learning game or elements in a game
- Constructing knowledge in mathematics
The Good, The Bad and The Contradictory
There are quite a few studies that compared animation for learning with static graphics for learning. In these studies, the effectiveness of animation produced mixed results and some results were even contradictory. On the down side, there were several studies that showed animation-based learning had no notable benefits compared to still graphics (Teversky et al., 2002).
On the up side, the results of a meta-analysis showed that there were notable benefits to dynamic animations (Hoeffler, & Leutner, 2007). In this meta-analysis, the types of animations that had the most substantial effect on learning were:
- Representational animations rather than animations created for affective purposes
- Animations that focused on teaching procedural-motor knowledge
- Highly realistic and video-based animations
Problems with Animations and How to Fix Them
Although animations are not ideal for all learning situations, they do have great potential. When animations are not beneficial to learning, it is due to poor design, presentation to the wrong audience, or a topic that is not suitable to be animated. That is, still graphics would be better. In the problems-solutions table below, you will find very specific problems identified in the research and possible solutions.
|THE PROBLEM||THE FIX|
|PACING. Researchers say that a key problem with the animation format is information overload. Most instructional animations are not paced for the limited capacity of working memory. During an animation, learners must quickly select the relevant information and hold that information in memory to integrate it with what comes next. This creates a high cognitive load that may hinder the resources available for learning.||Provide controls so the learner can slow down the animation to a comfortable pace. Allow users to rewind the animation.|
|SPLIT ATTENTION. When an animated sequence requires reading text and watching the animation, it splits the attention of the viewer. Because the viewer can not attend to both reading and watching movement at the same time, neither channel is attended to properly.||Use voiceover in sync with the animation rather than written text. Place labels next to the objects or process that they represent so attention will not be split.|
|DIFFICULTIES FOR NOVICES. Because many animations require the capacity for high cognitive processing, learners who are not familiar with a subject can have a more difficult time comprehending the material.||People with expert knowledge usually know where to focus their attention on task-relevant information. Novices are not as quick to determine where to focus. Complex animations, therefore, tend to be more beneficial to those with greater subject knowledge and experience. Novices may benefit more from static graphics than from animations.|
|FEWER GRAPHIC DEVICES. Certain "visuospatial" techniques of static graphics, such as cross-sections and exaggeration of important features, enhance learning and reduce information overload. There are no corresponding temporal approaches to these techniques.||If these types of graphical devices are the best choice, then replace the animation with a series of static graphics that depict the key phases of the animation.|
|NOT SURE WHERE TO LOOK. It can be hard for learners to quickly determine which parts of an animation are most relevant and which are not. In fact, some of the more dazzling elements may not be the most important but will attract the most attention.||Use visual cueing devices in animations to point out where learners should place their attention. There is some evidence that a spotlight cue (where less important areas are shaded) is effective. In another experiment, arrows were not as effective as spreading color cues overlaid on salient parts of the animation (kind of like ribbons). The color should spread synchronously with important events.|
|ILLUSION OF LEARNING. Some researchers report that students may enjoy watching animations over static graphics. This positive affect creates the illusion that the learner has acquired more knowledge or skill than assessment results show.||Use appropriate methods to determine if learning is taking place. Don't rely on self-reporting alone.|
Newer technologies make animations easier to create at a reasonable cost, making the format a viable choice for instruction. With educational researchers piecing together the data on its effectiveness for learning, a set of design principles based on evidence is emerging. It is important to consider the research before choosing to use the animation format. Then animations will be able to meet their potential for learning.
- Hegarty, M. (1992). Mental animation: Inferring motion from static diagrams of mechanical systems . Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 18, 1084-1102. Hegarty, M., Narayanan, N.H., & Freitas, P. (2002). Understanding machines from multimedia and hypermedia presentations. In J. Otero, J.A. Leon, & A. Graesser (Eds.), The psychology of science text comprehension (pp. 357-384). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
- Hoeffler, T.N. & Leutner, D. Learning and Instruction, 17: 722-738, 2007.
- Lowe, R.K. (2004). Animation and learning: Value for money? In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 558-561). Perth, 5-8 December.
- Pink, A. & Newton, P.M. Decorative animations impair recall and are a source of extraneous cognitive load
- Rosen, Y. (2009). The effects of an animation-based on-line learning environment on transfer of knowledge and on motivation for science and technology learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 40(4) p451-467.
- Schnotz, W, & Rasch, T. Enabling, Facilitating, and Inhibiting Effects of Animations in Multimedia Learning: Why Reduction of Cognitive Load Can Have Negative Results on Learning. Special Issue: Educational Technology Research and Development. September 2005, 53:47.
- Tversky, B. & Betrancourt, M,Morrison, J.B. Animation: Does It Facilitate Learning? Int. J. Human-Computer Studies, 57, 247-262, 2002.
Connie Malamed says
I think you have a lot of good points. Unfortunately, looking through a university database, this is the research that I found. I particularly like metastudies. Anyway, to your point, I don’t think any of this research focused on animating characters, which I think, has a very different purpose. These studies focused on using animations for explanations. So I think if you follow the guidelines in the table, such as adding controls so users can control the pace, then animations may be able to reduce cognitive load. On the other hand, if the animated objects are not labeled or if the labels are not near the object, it could split attention. Or if an animated explanation goes by too quickly, it can add to the cognitive load. I think it really depends. I’m guessing you really think things through, so you’ll probably come up with good solutions. But I think it’s important to realize that just because people are used to animations, it doesn’t mean they will improve performance without following some guidelines. If people can only process around 4 pieces of information at one time, there’s not much we can do about our cognitive architecture. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.
Lesa Black says
I would be interested in seeing studies that are more recent. My guess is that animations are not much of a distractor as they used to be since we now see animations as we review emails, play online games, read e-articles, and the many other things we do online. Ads are constantly flashing at us, both animated and not, while we are online. I also think that learners have become used to added stimulation while on the computer. What would have been an animated novelty in 2009 is “no big deal” in 2016 and I think that is the most recent citation listed. While, I’m not a big believer in animating every page of an e-learning, I do think that animations to chunk content is a great way to prevent cognitive overload. This works especially well to show pieces of information at a time especially in situations such as a process map or large amount of relational items that cannot be easily separated. Animation also gives “life” to characters in stories or narration. Personally, I think in today’s learning culture appropriate animations add to the transfer of knowledge. I would love to see a good study to see if I’m on track. :- )