Last updated: 05.04.18

Can integrating graphics in e-learning help boost engagement?

There are a wealth of techniques employed to ensure that learners engage with and relate to content, from the use of interaction to gamification, and visual design is one of these. The effective integration of graphics and text is vital for the success of any e-learning course:

  • Images add meaning and understanding to content
  • Help to guide the eye through the hierarchy on the page
  • Appeal to the audience and compliment the topic

There has been much research completed into the role of text and imagery in e-learning, leading to the implementation of the following key points in our course development.

Less is more

In their publication 'e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (2003)' Mayer and Clark promote the psychology of ‘less is more’, both through breaking text down to the key components but also through ensuring that all imagery is both relevant to the topic and enhances the information. When imagery is purely ‘eye candy’ or decoration, it adds to cognitive overload and distraction, just as the addition of unnecessary words would.

Seamless integration

The Spatial Contiguity Principle (Clark and Mayer 2011) states that in creating diagrams, words should be aligned with the corresponding part of the graphic, not set to one side or on another layer. Additionally, in the case of animations, the audio should be aligned with the relevant graphics. This integration of text and imagery helps the learner by:

  • Cutting down the need for scrolling through a page or layers in an attempt to link imagery and text
  • Keeping related text together (such as quiz questions and its feedback)
  • Ensuring that directions to be taken are still visible on screen at all times

Graphics should work seamlessly with the text to the point where the learner doesn’t notice them as a separate element, as they are such an integral part of the information, particularly where page layout graphics are involved.

Reduce cognitive load through the use of images

There are many ways in which we can unintentionally add to the cognitive load for a learner. One easy way in which we can break this down using images, is to consider where we can use imagery instead of reams of text. Often we can break chunks of text down into diagrams, tables or an image which will illustrate the main point using less words and is more memorable for the learner.

Dealing with sensitive topics

Extra consideration needs to be given when working with sensitive topics to ensure that text and imagery combine to deal sensitively with the topic and that distressing or inappropriate imagery is not used. This is particularly relevant in the creation of safeguarding or medical courses.

Depending on the target audience, sometimes it is necessary to use imagery to explain a point that it is difficult to portray through text alone (for example, a photograph of a medical symptom or procedure) but should be used with caution where it could cause distress (e.g. a module on child abuse) and an alternative method such as a written case study or audio account could be used instead.


Consistency is key both in terms of the writing and graphics. All graphical and writing styles should be a consistent throughout a project, in order to aid understanding of the course and the smooth transition between pages or sections. An inconsistent style or tone adds to cognitive load through the learner needing to interpret and understand new information and layouts, plus making links between the information for themselves, where this could have been provided.

Overall, there is much research out there confirming that people learn better when there is a combination of text and imagery. However, there are some considerations that must be accounted for in this theory in order to enhance the learning further and avoid unnecessary distractions. By considering what is appropriate for your audience with the points above you can build a solid foundation for your learning to be based upon.

Contact us for more information on how Virtual College can help your organisation create meaningful e-learning content bespoke to your organisation.