Training design - Cathy Moore


Could animations hurt learning?

The common habit of “building” information on a slide with animations could hurt learning, according to one study. Read more.

Could animations hurt learning?

By Cathy Moore

A recent study suggests that the common habit of “building” information on a slide can interfere with learning.

The researchers used Camtasia Studio to create two presentations on information security. The audio narration was the same in both presentations. The visuals were the same, too, except one presentation used an average of 3.4 animations per slide to make bullet points, words, or images enter at different times. The other animation had static slides—the information was simply there.

After viewing the presentation, students answered a multiple-choice quiz. Students who saw the flying-bullet-points presentation scored 71.43%, while students who saw the more static version scored 81.98%, a statistically significant difference.

Bar graph

What does this mean?

To me, this suggests that flying bullet points are not only annoying and gratuitous, they’re so annoying and gratuitous that they distract from the content. This isn’t a surprise.

However, this doesn’t mean that all animation is bad. The published study doesn’t show the presentation, but the researchers’ multiple-choice quiz strongly suggests that they presented simple facts. Here’s a typical question from the quiz:

7. Most computer crime is attempted by:
a. Competitors
b. Employees
c. Outside hackers
d. Foreign governments

It looks like learners could have read a cheap and simple PDF to get the same facts, in which case I wonder why the information was delivered as a presentation at all.

Bigger concern: Why use elearning for this?

Too often, elearning is viewed as simply a way to deliver information, and it looks like the researcher’s presentation has that goal. But elearning’s strength is in its ability to challenge learners with realistic interactions that make them interpret and apply new information. Animation could have a role in such an interaction—for example, it might be needed to duplicate a process in the real world.

I wish the researchers had also tested a short, concise text document, because it looks like that’s all they really needed.

If we really just need to deliver information, we can send out an email or a link to an intranet page that presents the facts clearly and concisely. We can then use our elearning tool or LMS for the quiz, and we’ll be done in less than half the time it would have taken to craft a slick elearning module—plus we don’t have to give a second’s thought to whether we should make the bullet points fly.

Related articles

Is a course really the answer?
Common mistakes when writing multiple-choice questions

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34 comments on “Could animations hurt learning?

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  1. Hurray for the written word! I’ve often been called into meetings to be given information in powerpoint. Give me a well-written paragraph instead, if that’s all I’m going to need to know.

    On the other hand, a visual presentation should have some good images that help convey some of the content. Visuals show relationships more clearly than text, and can also communicate emotional content.

    I already tend to avoid flying bullet points (and bullet points in general when possible) but there’s something to think about in these results. For example, I would tend to think of showing a 20% growth in something by letting the chart visually grow 20%, but from what I’m taking away from these findings, people may be more likely to have their eyes follow the animation itself rather than register the 20% growth I might be trying to communicate.

    Thanks for the reference.

  2. @Betsy – I am intrigued by this topic as well. I remember teaching PowerPoint to my high students when I was in the classroom. BOY did they overdo it on the animations and sound effects. So, yes, I can see how animations can distract from learning. However, with regard to the example that you used, I tend to think that an animation DIRECTLY related to the point that is being made, such as growing a chart visually to show growth is a little different than just animating bullet points one by one. I think some of the research says that animating bullet points one by one and other random animation tended to place the information on the screen for a shorter amount of time, thereby decreasing retention.

    Another perspective here is the actual use of the presentation. Do we want learners to just REMEMBER what exactly was on the screen or to understand a concept that they can they apply in a problem solving situation? Those are two different things to be looked at with regard to this particular research.

    Good post.

  3. I agree that it’s a great idea to use visuals and animation that actually support the content, such as growing a graph segment to show an increase over time. My concern is with the large amount of irrelevant “eye candy” that appears in elearning.

    Apparently the researchers’ goal was simply to communicate facts. Their quiz, which was delivered immediately after the presentation, mostly tested learners’ ability to regurgitate a fact that they had just learned. It would be interesting to see if the difference in that recall ability holds steady over time or if one group forgets more quickly than the other.

    It would also be interesting to use animations but to leave the info on the screen for the same length of time as the static presentation shows it. By fading out old bullet points while adding new ones, they could make sure each individual factoid appeared for X seconds in both presentations. I’d suspect that the viewers of the animated version would still have lower scores, because animations that don’t contribute to our understanding are distracting and clutter up our visual channel.

  4. Hi Cathy,
    I have a question on a related subject. I am now designing a text-only (no-audio) e-L course, and I cannot decide if the information (bulletpoints, paragraphs, illustrations) should appear on the slide one by one or enter all at the same time. My concern is that the first option could annoy students, especially if a student’s reading pace is not in sync with animation timings. On the other hand, the second option will make slides (most of which are, yes, narrational) very static, it will be the same as flipping through a Powerpoint presentation. What do you think?

    And yes, I totally agree that a simple PDF would have been much easier to read. In fact, I AM converting a very well-written PDF into this very static, linear and non-interactive course.. because the client says so.

  5. Kia ora e Cathy!

    From 2000 to the end of 2002 I conducted a plethora of experiments similar to the one you describe here. My findings concur with the results you report and the conclusions you draw from them.

    I agree that animation can be distracting. The uselessness of animation for the sake of it made me include at least two elearning myths in my list of champion myths.

    The principle that I found worked well when using images and animations in particular was that whatever was used had to be relevant and to the point. Culling the animation often led to better engagement than inclusion. Absolutely no flashy distractors. They simply don’t work.

    Even in an environment where animation is employed a lot, the judicious use of it is paramount to success.

    All of the resources I’ve linked to in this comment were ‘user tested’ by learners who had the opportunity to complete an online evaluation feedback form and to proffer such additional comment as they felt necessary. Testing was over a period of about 2 years, during which time refinements were made according to learner suggestion and advice as well as learner success.

    I must say here that what you claim to be statistically significant (71.43% vs 81.98%) will depend on the samples used in the runs – the number in the controls as well as the tester samples of participants.

    For samples of, say, 20 students in each group, such a variation would not necessarily be statistically significant unless the trials were run a considerable number of times with different groups.

    It is inordinately difficult to obtain sound statistical data with smaller groups unless many trials are run over a significant period of time.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  6. The problem with the article is that is does not state the theory to explain why.

    The theory is Cognitive Load Theory.

    The authors seem surprised that animation hurts learning but Cognitive Load Theory attempts to explain why our brains can’t handle audio, video and text.


  7. Sergey, thanks for your question. I’d vote for static slides. In addition to being distracting, animations take control from the learner, as you point out. A learner who reads more quickly than an animation “allows” will get frustrated, which will both distract and de-motivate them. Animations also make it less likely that a learner will skim through the material a second time to review.

    You might be able to add some interest by the way you divide the information between slides. For example, you could ask a compelling question at the end of one slide and answer it on the next. You might find some ideas in this slideshow:

  8. Thanks for posting this research with your post. Although the insights did add to my perspective, whether the theory was identified or the findings were indisputable was not where my focus settled.

    The bottom line for me was that I appreciate your point that being aware of what might contribute to learner distraction in design is worth revisiting for each design opportunity on my plate. It reminded me that “Less is More” — today. Love your posts! Keep them coming.

  9. As an Instructional Design manager with a number of years experience, I have often baffled customers when I suggested we send out a nicely worded memo or “booklet'” to share the content with our learners.

    They naturally expected me to push an e-learning solution on them. What they failed to understand is my agenda was learning, not support of a delivery method. I’ve always preferred “substance over style.” Thanks for posting this result.

  10. Here’s another take on the study by Olivia Mitchell, who has seen samples from the presentation used in the study. The screenshot animation she describes does sound reasonable (arrows point to elements of the screen that are being discussed), which leads me to wonder along with her if the problem is mostly the gratuitous animation of bullet points.

  11. Scot, I’m happy to hear that you’re fighting the good fight. I sometimes remember with fondness the days when I could create a crisp, two-page document and people would agree that it was the best solution. Now it seems like the same problem would “require” a 30-minute narrated course with flying pie charts.

    Maybe the current belt-tightening will help people recognize that sometimes the simple approach is best.

  12. Having been involved in elearning for awhile, I know that in the beginning I got caught up with all the cool things Flash could do. I LOVED thinking of creative ways to present information. Several years later after diving into the learning research from Dr. Will Thalhiemer, Dr. Ruth Clark etal. I am humbled. Animations, audio, photos, and video are all just part of my toolbox now. The key is knowing the right tool to use for the task.

  13. Cathy thank you for starting this discussion!

    I have often argued that effects for effects sake serve no real purpose and indeed can distract from learning. There are however instances, as Ken points out where effects and animations when used “judiciously” to highlight content, or encourage interaction can actually enhance comprehension. Here less is better! He goes on to consider the difficulty we experience in making sense out of studies and statistics something we all need to do better in order to draw thoughtful conclusions and make audience appropriate recommendations.

    This debate will no doubt continue but it illustrates the point that these devices need to serve a design purpose and we as thoughtful designers should seek to employ them where appropriate for given audiences. This exchange has been most useful!

    Mike Millard
    Pittsboro, NC

  14. Well said, Cate Poole!

    Cathy’s wonderful blog post and everyone’s thoughtful comments seems to stress the same thing… something I consider with every new course project:

    Research-based methodologies.

    When the authors, like Clark and Mayer, provide the details behind the research results, it helps us to better understand those results and how to retool our design and development toolboxes.

    It helps me to know the right tool to use when I read research articles and books that help me feel like I was a part of the project… that “I was there…” ah-ha moment.

    For example, due to Clark and Mayer (and others), I think we all on this Comments page live and breathe “contextual visuals” now! 🙂

  15. Having looked at hundreds of these recorded PowerPoint lectures, I am surprised that after sitting through a 17 min lecture like that they even scored over 30%. 🙂

    I always take these studies with a grain of salt when it comes to applying the results to elearning. First, it’s a recording of a lecture that I assume is a very standard looking PowerPoint deck with animated bullet points. How does that compare to animation added to a scenario like Allen Interaction’s terrorist demo? Would that study be different if the PowerPoint lecture also included an interactive component?

    To me the essential point goes to what many of the commenters suggest and that is the appropriateness of the content to the learning desired. There’s no need to use animation for the sake of animation. However a study like this is also not a rejection of all things animated.

  16. Cathy,

    Good insights and conversations. Thanks.

    Animation does NOT hurt learning – when used properly.

    Animation has its own value in Learning. Flying bullets are not the best use of animation, hence, in this case may be it is not justifiable to even ask the bigger question “could animation hurt learning.”

    Just like any tool, animation, PPT, audio, video and others, they may help or hurt learning.

    I often asked myself why there is so much improper use of tools, like animation or the improper use of video, audio or games? I suggest that one of the challenges is the inability of designers and developers to bring out in their design the “organics” – life – of their content. So, whether we add animation is not the issue. If one fails to breathe life into the content, a test, and a review, no amount of multimedia will help in learning. Multimedia in this case is wasteful and counter productive.

    Often, I follow simple rules:

    1. Find the real-life application of the content.

    2. Not to test retention, but test application

    3. Allow learners to demonstrate applications, whether in concept or in real world

    Once the designer has answered these questions, then and only then should he/she ask what multimedia can I use to help improve the learning.

    Animations are only accessories to learning; but they glitter, so they attract. And worn properly can make a huge difference in learning.


  17. Ray- I think you raised some great points…especially your three simple rules. As an Instructional Designer my challenge is to try to remember everything I know about how people learn and try not to get caught up in the details of the content or the bells and whistles of groovy multi-media. More often than not I’m asking myself these two questions:
    Why is this important to the learner?
    How I can I help the learner remember this stuff?

    Curious about what kinds of questions others are asking themselves.

  18. Yes, Cate!

    I ask those same questions! Sometimes, that’s not the purpose of the course per the SMEs, but I ask anyway.

    WIIFM?, asks the learner.
    WIIFM?, asks the business.

    It’s a balancing act. We IDs are the liaisons between the business and the learners. We’re educating SMEs and managers to see that telling a story, and involving the learner in that story (making it “real”), will provide both WIIFM outcomes.

    And, animations/interactions frequently are the methods used to tell that story. When designed well, the animations add value.

    As far as other questions, I ask these:

    What does the Board of Directors care about, in terms of the business?
    What does Legal/Compliance/HR care about?
    What are managements objectives and goals for performance?
    What topics truly are training issues to go into a course?
    What topics do not belong in the course?
    What’s the story we can tell for knowledge/skill retention and transfer to the learners’ jobs so the business achieves its goals?

  19. Thanks, everyone, for the great discussion. To answer Cate’s question, these are the questions I tend to ask (they became action mapping):

    1. How will business performance improve if we’re successful with this material? (More cynically, how can we justify the expense of creating this material?)

    2. What do people need to *do* in the real world to create that business improvement?

    3. What online activities will help people practice those real-world actions? (In an ideal project, these activities are also the assessment, avoiding a fact-based quiz.)

    4. What’s the *minimum* information people need to complete those activities? Should it be in the course or in a job aid?

    This is the reverse of the common, “Here’s the content they need to know. Please make a course out of it.” The content is identified only after the performance (not learning) objectives are solid.

    Ideally all the stakeholders are involved in answering these questions, so we don’t have people adding additional content at the last minute. As Jenise points out, we have to please a lot of people who have sometimes conflicting goals.

  20. I totally agree that we need to figure out the actual objective of the course, structure content that will meet that objective, and then just mold the content so it can be understood and assimilated as easily as possible.

    But on a more micro-level, if we are using animations, I think a simple rule of thumb is to ensure that all the information you need to learner to remember is present on the screen at the end of each screen. That way, you illustrate each point with your visuals or visual examples when they are first presented, but at the end of the screen the learner has a concise list of the key points of that screen. They can go through the points at leisure, figure out anything they’ve missed out or need to scan through again, and proceed to the next screen when they’re comfortable with the current information.

    Of course the layout of these screens take a little more work, and you have to struggle a bit to avoid a cluttered feel, but (as I go trying to convince the designers) it’s worth the effort!

  21. It would love to see the animated bullet list slide example. Any chance of finding it?

    How about these design ideas for the slide: Show the slide in its entirety as the speaker starts.Then highlight the bullet list items as the speaker progresses using e.g. a different text (greyscale) color. When writing the speaker texts consider what will happen on screen. Make use of natural pauses in the speaker text to highlight the bullet list items, e.g. in between sentences. Show the bullet list items slightly before the speaker comes to that part of his/her presentention. The writing principle of “one idea – one sentence” helps the design of the on screen content. Also remember, a properly designed bullet list is a cross between verbal and pictorial information. You don’t want to repeat what the speaker reads on screen. You should make maximum use of the pictorial information value of the key words.

    To conclude, bullet lists are very often the “easy way out”, design-wise. There are always better ways to design the on screen content.


  22. Olivia, thanks for posting the samples!

    I agree that the researchers violated some basic principles established by prior research into cognitive load. For example, here are some research-based principles from Efficiency in Learning (Clark, Nguyen, Sweller) that the animated version violates, and sometimes the non-animated version as well:

    –“Give learners control over pacing.” The slides were presented to a class that had no control over them.

    –“Present information in as few modes as needed to make it understandable” because “multiple content expressions actually overload working memory.” While we’re processing the audio in the slides, we’re also seeing redundant text, pictures, and animation, and some bullet points are inexplicably in different colors.

    –“Audio explanations aided learning only when the tasks were more complex and only for visuals that were not self-explanatory.” The only time audio seems useful to me is when the presentation explains the screen shot.

    –“Instructors should remain silent when presenting textual information to learners.”

    –“Sequence on-screen text after audio to minimize redundancy”

    As I mentioned in the original post, the researchers’ results are not surprising.

    This kind of research and discussion is valuable. At the same time, this focus on the fine points of content presentation obscures a larger question: Why is basic material delivered this way at all? Why is “instruction” so often equated with putting simple, factual content on tiny screens and spoon-feeding it to passive learners? Couldn’t that be part of the problem here–learners are resenting their treatment?

    I dealt with the static show by skimming the bullets and tuning out the narrator. In the animated version, it was harder to do that, so I got more squirmy and annoyed. So the question might not be simply, “How do media choices affect our ability to process info?” I think we should also consider, “How do media choices affect our *willingness* to process info?”

  23. An important question well discussed,Cathy. Although I suspect that some animations are counterproductive, I am very suspicious of this study, too.
    That they neither included a link to the presentations or, at least, its text is odd, There were only 9 questions in the test, your link to “Common mistakes when writing multiple-choice questions” clearly shows how inadequate they were and neither validity nor reliability figures were given. For a quantitative study, these are hardly acceptable. As such, it definitely does not extend “the exploration of PowerPoint animations by assessing the impact of custom animation on student learning across various demographic and performance characteristics” (Mahar, Yaylacicegi & Janicki; 2009; p. 7), as they claim. As much as I agree with their hypothesis, I would never cite such a study.

  24. I certainly share the sentiments expressed in these comments, especially when it comes to the unfortunate tendency to choose style over content. I wonder how giving the learner control over the bullets’ appearance (and cutting the narration) might affect these results?

  25. I concur with the results with own experience. With some of our clients, our business sponsors have always asked for more text animation. We have many times convinced them to show it to actual users and gain their feedback.

    The users have always felt that having the entire information text on hand and listening to audio is better rather than get them fly. All they asked for is animation in visuals that is more useful and edutaining that serves as a refreshing break from their routine job.

  26. The samples both seemed to be really good examples of what NOT to do. I tuned out really quickly in both. I think I would have scored badly in the tests.

    Flying bullet points have been a no-no since PowerPoint existed. I remember attending a PowerPoint Workship in 1995 with the faciliator drumming it into our heads to minimise stupid animations like bullet points.

    I think the real point here is that animation should be used to enhance not distract. You can use text animation – but minimally.

    I wrote a course on diversity. I’d recorded a number of employees and asked them what working in a diverse organisation meant to them.

    In the module, extracts of those responses were played and key words appeared against a black screen and stayed on screen until the audio component finished. In the testing and review phase – the feedback was that this was incredibly powerful and motivating (unfortunately, the powers that be then wanted this in every module – luckily, I talked them out of it). This was the only animated text in the module.

    Animation has many assets – but it must be used only when it will propel learning.

  27. HI – it has been interesting reading the comments, I can only speak for myself in that I have a ‘picture’ memory rather than facts so would be able to recall an image and relate to the reason rather than a slide with just words. I do think the ‘flying in’ is unnecessary though.
    I also think if you use an image as character to be seen throughout the course it does bring some personality to the learning. I think the younger generation almost expect there to be interactive images as this is what they look for when they play games/ watch TV etc.
    I work in elearning with nhs staff and find interactive images are effective in learning e.g. pulling a virtual shringe to the correct dosage etc.
    So in short, I guess I am trying to say that it depends on your target audience!

  28. Dan Roam states in “Unfolding the Napkin” –
    Pictures are pure excitement for our minds – especially when we see them drawn right in front of us. When we see pieces of a picture come together, our brain… starts making connections, guessing, and anticipating what is likely to come next.

    The book describes how to present to a group, so building the same in an eLearning course means copying how it feels to watch someone draw on a whiteboard while listening to the speaker.

    I plan to use this idea in future eLearning projects. I know Powerpoint will animate custom drawn lines, and I am looking into how to do this in Flash. Anyone else doing this already?

  29. Your project will probably work. I hope that, once it shows promise, you’ll isolate it’s elements that are effective from those that are not. You might find Adobe Presenter 7 ( which converts PowerPoint to Flash, or their entire eLearning Suite 2 ( helpful.
    However, I don’t think the ‘animation’ you intend has much in common with those critiqued by Cathy. See my earlier comment on her critique (June 19th, 2009). You’re using actual animation not cheap tricks that may be counter productive.
    Bye for now,

  30. As much as I like text animations, moving objects and all sorts of eye candy, I cannot agree more – too often we tend to use animations just for the sake of using something other than static text and images, and the results are not always what we want. Same BTW is to be said about narrations and videos.

    The reality is, noone is surprised by beautiful moving and audible elements any longer, and seeing a building text or a video is as fresh and surprising as a button rollover.

    At the same time a well-written scenario or an example of quality storytelling is never getting old, especially when supported by tasteful non-destructive graphics.