Animation entertainment, animated representations are frequently used as

Animation can be
defined as “a simulated motion picture depicting movement of drawn (or
simulated) objects” (Mayer and Moreno, 2002, p88). Although most people would
primarily associate animation with entertainment, animated representations are frequently
used as educational tools and are currently a prominent feature of multimedia
learning environments. In contexts where animation is used for teaching and/or
learning purposes, it is referred to as instructional or educational animation.
The first applications of animation for educational purposes were animated
graphics used in science to illustrate processes which are difficult to
visualize, such as molecular bonding, heat transfer and storm formation. Having
the capacity to show a more realistic portrayal of these phenomena through
movement, animated graphics were keenly adopted as a supposedly superior alternative
to the static images and texts previously used to teach these concepts (Schnotz
and Rasch, 2008, p92). Animations were also perceived as a successful way of
incorporating technology in teaching and learning, thus enhancing traditional
teaching methods and making them more relevant for the first generations of
digital natives.

The use of animation in
educational contexts has been further encouraged by the arrival of
animation-design tools which, by not requiring high technical training, have made
it possible for teachers and educators to create their own animations. Before
this development, this type of learning material was created almost exclusively
by people who had the technical knowledge to design it but who were not
necessarily trained to predict its effects on learning (Kirby, 2008, p167). User-friendly
software such as PowToon and GoAnimate has made animation design accessible and
nowadays animated videos are used in virtually every academic subject and in
all educational levels ranging from primary to postgraduate education.

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The popularity of
educational animation has been based to a large extent on the assumption that “animation
is more interesting, aesthetically appealing, and therefore more motivating”
(Kim et al., 2007, p261) than other instructional tools. This belief among many
educators and teachers has hindered an honest review of the role of animation
in the learning process. Despite very influential research concluding that animation
is not “a magical panacea that automatically creates understanding” (Mayer and
Moreno, 2002, p97), many practitioners have been reluctant to acknowledge that generating
motivation and interest might not be enough to create understanding and achieve
learning objectives. Given the frequency and extent to which animation is being
used as a teaching tool, this seems to be a timely moment to reflect on how we are
designing and implementing it. The purpose of this article is to revisit the
research on the effects of animation in learning, to discuss its pedagogical implications
and to provide teachers and material designers with a series of practical guidelines
for the design and use of educational animation.

Cognitive
psychology research

John A. Kirby points
out that it is not uncommon for educational innovations to be assessed long
after they are implemented (Kirby, 2008, p167); that was precisely the case
with animation, which had already been in use for quite some time when its
effects on learning started to be assessed. To begin with, researchers tried to
determine the effectiveness of animation in comparison to text or static
graphics. The results were inconclusive and at times contradictory: in some
cases animation seemed to be superior to text or static graphics, in other
cases it did not prove to make any difference and in a few cases animation
seemed to be detrimental to learning. These diverse results lead researchers to
conclude that “animation may or may not promote learning, depending on how it
is used” and that research should focus on “how animation can be used in ways
that are consistent with how people learn” (Mayer and Moreno, 2002, p88). Nowadays
the consensus among researchers is that animation has great potential as a
teaching tool if it is designed and
used with a series of features and conditions which have been proved to facilitate
learning.

Cognitive psychologists
have analysed the human learning process in general and the learning process
with animation in particular. Furthermore, they have been able to provide clear
recommendations regarding the design of educational animation in order to
ensure that learning is enhanced as much as possible (Hegarty and Kriz, 2008,
p3). The Cognitive Load Theory developed
by John Sweller in the late 1980s laid the basis for the most specific research
on animation developed later. Sweller
identified three types of memory at play in the learning process: the sensory
memory, which through a verbal/auditory channel and a visual/pictorial channel
collects information from the environment; the working memory, which is used to
think and process information and has a limited capacity; and the long-term
memory, which is the final destination of what we learn and has unlimited
capacity (Brame, 2015, online).

The limited capacity of the working memory has
important implications for the design of educational material. When materials
are poorly designed (e.g. unclear instructions, too much extra information,
level of difficulty inappropriate to the learner’s previous knowledge,
confusing layout), they will use too much working memory, not leaving enough to
do the necessary processing of information to achieve the learning objective. Any
cognitive effort which is imposed by a poor design of the instructional
material and is not directly related to the achievement of the learning
objective is defined by Sweller as extraneous
cognitive load (Sweller, 1994, p302). Thus, the Cognitive Load Theory
points at the importance of designing learning materials which involve as
little extraneous cognitive load as possible so that working memory has enough
capacity left to carry out the necessary processing leading to understanding.

The Cognitive Load Theory had implications for the
design of educational learning materials in general. Mayer and Moreno built on
these ideas to explain how people learn in multimedia contexts specifically. They developed
the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia
Learning, which maintains that humans have two separate channels to process
visual/pictorial information and auditory/verbal information respectively, that
the amount of information we are able to process in each of these channels is
limited, and that deep learning only takes place when we engage in processes
such as selecting the relevant information, organising it in a general
cognitive structure and relating it to existing knowledge (2002, p91). Mayer
and Moreno maintain that animation can be an efficient instructional medium if
it is designed in consistency with multimedia learning, which they define as
“learning from words and pictures … the words can be printed (e.g., on-screen
text) or spoken (e.g., narration) … the pictures can be static (e.g., illustrations,
graphs, charts, photos, or maps) or dynamic (e.g., animation, video, or
interactive illustrations)” (2003, 43).

 

Research-based
animation design

Like Sweller, Mayer and
Moreno emphasize the importance of designing material which causes as little
extraneous cognitive load as possible, so that learners are left with enough
capacity to “engage in deep processing of the essential material in the lesson”
(Mayer, 2008, p38). The first and most obvious recommendation for animation
design is therefore weeding, which involves
eliminating all elements which do not contribute to reaching learning goals or
do not facilitate understanding. Examples of extraneous cognitive load caused
by animation can be images not related to the theme of the lesson, distracting movement
or complex backgrounds. A very strict approach to weeding would suggest
eliminating even background music, whereas more lenient versions would only
recommend reducing the amount of extra information provided about the topic.
How much extra information to remove when designing an animation should be
based on the learners’ prior knowledge of the subject, since extra information
which could make understanding overwhelming for a novice could actually be
helpful and motivating for a more advanced learner (Brame, 2015, online).

Another way of reducing
extraneous load is signalling (also
known as cueing), which involves
highlighting the most relevant pieces of information so that the learners know
where to focus their attention. This guides learners and reduces the cognitive
effort required to select the relevant elements (Amedieu, Mariné and Laimay,
2010, p36). When used in combination with weeding, signalling can ensure that
even if some non-essential elements have been left in the animation, the
learners’ attention can be directed to the most relevant aspects of the
material. Signalling or cueing can be done by using arrows or other graphics to
point at specific parts (as shown in Figure 1), choosing different text, size
or colour to make some elements more prominent, zooming or highlighting. Signalling
will be particularly relevant in the case of novice learners, who will have
more difficulties to identify the most relevant content of the animation.

 

                 Figure 1. Animation where an
arrow is used for signalling the most relevant part of the content

                    (the citation).

 

 

A third design feature
which can reduce extraneous load is to avoid using both narration and on-screen
text. This is called the Redundancy
Principle and it is based on test results which showed that learners
performed better “after viewing a narrated animation rather than a narrated
animation with concurrent on-screen text” (Mayer, 2008, p39). The reason why
some animation designers opt for including both narration and on-text screen is
their desire of accommodating both auditory and visual learners. If both
narration and text are present in the animation each learner would be able to
choose whatever input they prefer depending on their learning styles. However,
Mayer explains that this option can be problematic because whereas a narrated
animation would have one element (i.e. images) processed through the
visual/pictorial channel and another element (i.e. narration) processed through
the auditory/verbal channel; a narrated animation with text would present two elements
(i.e. images and text) which would have to be simultaneously processed through
the visual/pictorial channel, potentially causing extraneous cognitive load in
that channel and therefore hindering learning (2008, p39). Furthermore,
different studies have shown that when animation is accompanied only by
narration learners engage and remember more and their ability to transfer
information increases (Brame, 2015, online).

It is important to
clarify that the on-screen text discouraged by the Redundancy Principle would
be a text reproducing what the narration is saying, which means that the
animation would present identical printed and spoken words, hence making the printed
words “redundant”. The principle would not apply, however, to text consisting
of key words that have the purpose of highlighting the most relevant parts for
the content (Mayer and Johnson, 2008, p385), which could also be taken as an
example of signalling. The recommendation is therefore to design instructional
animation using only narration to accompany the images instead of using
narration and identical text. However, text which is not meant to transcribe
the narration but has the purpose of focusing the learners’ attention on
specific parts of the content can be useful.

A further
recommendation to reduce cognitive overload has been made in relation to the
use of key words and highlighting text: to place text right next to the part of
the animation it refers to. This has been called the Spatial Contiguity Principle, which maintains that “people learn
better when corresponding elements of the narration and on-screen text are
presented near rather than far from each other on the screen” (Mayer, 2008,
p40). When images and corresponding/explanatory text are placed apart from each
other, learners are forced to scan the screen and find the connection between
images and words, which adds a cognitive effort which can be avoided by placing
the text closer to the image. This is particularly relevant if the learner is
not given the possibility of pausing or replaying the animation and must make
connections between text and image in a matter of seconds.

 

      Figure 2. Animation where the text used
to guide learners’ attention to specific parts of the

      content
(author´s surname, etc.) is placed next to the elements it refers to.

 

 

Together with the
recommendations mentioned above to reduce extraneous cognitive load in
animation, cognitive research has also resulted in a series of principles
directed at facilitating the processing of information. According to the
Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning, the last step in the learning process
would be the generative processing
(Mayer, 2008, p43), which involves selecting and organising the relevant parts
of the material and relating them to prior knowledge. This cognitive process is
more likely to be achieved when on the one hand, the animation design helps
manage the difficulty or complexity of the subject matter and when on the other
hand, it fosters engagement and deep understanding.

When the material to be
learned is intrinsically complex and the processing needed to understand it is
superior to the learners’ cognitive capacity we talk about essential processing overload. There are several animation design
features that can help manage essential overload and therefore facilitate the selecting
and organising of relevant information. One of these features is signalling or cueing, which has been
previously mentioned as beneficial to reduce extraneous overload but which can also
be useful to avoid essential processing overload, since it can make the
organisation of the material and the relationship between its different parts
clearer to the learner. An example of such cues could be an animation where the
accompanying narration emphasizes the main ideas through intonation and signposting
words such as “first”, “second”, “as a consequence”, etc. The role of these
phrases would be to guide the attention of the learner to the most relevant
parts of the animation, which has been proved to have positive effects on how
much learners remember and on how difficult they perceive the subject matter to
be (Jamet et al., 2008, p12).

Segmenting
the animation into small units is another of the features which has proved to
be efficient to reduce essential processing overload. When used in combination
with signalling and weeding, segmenting can help learners organise content and
integrate it with previous knowledge (Ibrahim et al., 2012, p220). Segmenting
can be done by introducing pauses after each main part of the animation, option
which can be optimized if the pause can be controlled by the learner. Another
way of segmenting is to include tasks at different points of the animation and
require students to complete them before they are allowed to continue (see
Figures 3 and 4). Learners could be assessed on what the animation has shown
previously or/and be asked to make predictions about what is going to be
explained later.

 

       Figure 3. Animation with integrated
tasks. The numbers on the time line at the bottom

       of the screen indicate where tasks will have
to be completed.

 

            Figure 4. Quiz integrated within
the animation shown in Figure 3. Learners

            are asked to complete the task
before continuing watching the animation.

            The correct answers are provided at
the end.

 

Giving learners the possibility
of pausing the animation whenever they want or testing their understanding at
different points of the animation are regarded as interactive features. Bétrancourt
talks about the interactivity principle,
which she defines as “the capability for learners to interact with the
instructional material” (2005, p287). When users have the choice of pausing the
animation, rewinding and moving forward they are in control of how much content
it is presented to them at one time and how much they want to watch again; they
are also in control of how much time to spend in each of the sections, which
facilitates a progressive processing of the information. It seems that being
able to interact and control the animation can enhance students’ motivation and
enjoyment and has been linked to better performance (Kim et al., 2007, p261; Mayer and Chandler, 2001, p393).

Segmenting may not be
necessary if a lesson is broken into a series of short animations instead of the
whole content being presented in a long one. A large study about the
relationship between online educational videos and student engagement revealed
that the length of the videos is the
factor that influences engagement the most. Results showed that the shortest
videos, no longer than 3 minutes, had the highest engagement and that students
often watched less than halfway if the videos were longer than 9 minutes (Guo,
Kim and Robin, 2014, online). Some animated video software such as PowToon recommend
60-90 seconds as the most appropriate length for animations. It has also been
observed that students are more likely to engage in assessment activities after
watching short videos than after watching long ones. Furthermore, video
producers have pointed at the possibility of shorter videos having higher
quality content, “since it takes meticulous planning to explain a concept
succinctly”, which means that shorter videos could be more engaging “not only
due to length but also because they are better planned” (Guo, Kim and Robin,
2014, online).

Besides the design features
which can contribute to manage the intrinsic difficulty of the material,
generative processing can also be fostered by building a “sense of social
partnership” between the learner and the animation (Mayer, 2008, p44). One of
the design-related principles proposed to achieve this fostering is the personalization principle, which
maintains that people learn better if the narration in the animation has an
informal or conversational style rather than a formal one, for example by using
“you” to make the message more personal or by avoiding formal structures such
as passive phrases. The feeling of social partnership is also more easily
achieved if the narrator’s voice used in the animation is a human voice rather
than a machine simulated voice (the
voice principle). It seems that when the narrator’s voice comes from a
human, “learners might be more likely to accept the lesson as a social
conversation” (Mayer, 2008, p44). Experimental tests carried out by Mayer and
his colleagues showed that students scored higher after being instructed with
animations where a conversational style (rather than formal style) and a human
voice (rather than machine simulated voice) were used (Mayer, 2008, pp44-45). It
has been suggested that informal style and human voices make learners feel that
the narrator is conversing with them, which increases their engagement and
effort to understand the message they are being conveyed.

The concept of social
partnership is especially relevant when discussing the use of animated pedagogical agents (APAs), computerized
characters with human-like gestures, speech, etc. which fulfil the role of
tutor or learning companion. APAs seem to contribute to learners perceiving the
animation as a social exchange, therefore creating a closer connection
(partnership) between them and the learning material. Some of the features of
APAs that learners value the most are the verbal and non-verbal signals which
resemble the ones we use in face-to-face conversation, such as gestures, facial
expressions and intonation. The possibility of showing emotion on the part of
APAs has proved to enhance students’ learning experience in several ways. For
example, an APA that seems to care about a student’s progress may encourage the
student to care more about his/her own progress and an enthusiastic APA may foster
similar enthusiasm in the learner. It has been pointed out that “by creating
the illusion of life, dynamically animated agents have the potential to significantly
increase the time that people seek to spend with educational software” (Johnson
et al., 2000, p60).

 

  Figure 5.
Two of the APAs available in the animation design software Nawmal.

 

If the design features
mentioned above can make a significant contribution to exploiting animation’s
potential as a teaching tool, they might not be sufficient. How the animations
are used is equally relevant. A study carried out by Hwang et al. (2012), where
they tested animations designed following Mayer and Moreno’s principles,
revealed that learners had most frequently viewed the animations after reading
their notes first and they had suggested the addition of exercises related to
the content of the animations (p373). These reflections from students seem to
indicate that the most efficient way of using animations is in combination with
other teaching materials. Hegarty and Kriz also point out that in order to be
efficient as a teaching tool animation must not only be designed in accordance
to research-informed principles, but must also be used as one component of a larger learning context (2008, p26). Learning
platforms such as Moodle make it possible to integrate animation with other
teaching resources in a very effective way. Animations can for example be
inserted in texts or be used in combination with a variety of quizzes. The
combination of animation with other types of learning resources offers a varied
learning experience and caters for diverse learning styles.