Sung & Mayer (2012)

Sung, E., and Mayer, R. E. (2012). When graphics improve liking but not learning from online lessons. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 1618-1625.


In this study by Sung and Mayer (2012), the authors explore the impact of graphics on learning. According to the multimedia principle, “People learn better from words and pictures than from words and pictures alone” (1618). This principle has been supported by numerous studies (see this article review). Adding graphics to a lesson can improve (1) performance, and (2) motivation. 

The authors divide graphics into three distinct categories:

  1. Instructive graphics. These types of graphics are relevant to an instructional goal. According to the authors, an instructive graphic “Primes appropriate cognitive processing such as attending to the relevant information, organizing it, and integrating it with relevant prior knowledge” (1619).
  2. Seductive graphics. These graphics are interesting or attention-grabbing, but not relevant to the lesson content. This type of graphic requires learners to expend cognitive energy to process a graphic that is irrelevant to learning goals.
  3. Decorative graphics. These graphics are “neutral in cognitive impact.” They are pleasant but not very distracting.

In order to study the impact of each of these three types of graphics on performance and motivation, the authors performed a short experiment with 200 college students. They divided the students into 4 groups (instructive graphics, seductive graphics, decorative graphics, and no graphics), and administered a pretest, recall test, and satisfaction survey. They then performed a quantitative analysis to draw conclusions. The authors found that instructive graphics improve performance, while seductive graphics harm performance. Decorative graphics and no graphics yield basically the same level of performance. Interestingly, students indicated higher levels of satisfaction when any type of graphic was used. Satisfied students are more motivated students, so logically, adding even irrelevant graphics can improve student motivation.

While I find the results of this study interesting and quite useful, as the authors themselves point out: “The lessons used in this study were short, the material was simple, the test was immediate, the learners were college students, and only one lesson was involved” (1624). In other words, there are some nuances to this question that are not fully captured by this particular research design. We cannot make blanket recommendations to always use any type of graphic because it increases enjoyment, because perhaps the distraction from a seductive graphic would counteract the benefit of the increased motivation. I also concur with the authors’ that the study failed to precisely quantify “relevance” or “interestingness.” These factors could surely influence the findings but are difficult to accurately measure (especially in a small scale study as this).
Despite these shortcomings, I found this article to be very useful. The literature review was succinct but thorough, and showed all sides of the issue: when graphics help, hurt, or have no effect on learning. The three easy-to-understand categories of graphics (and the helpful examples provided by the authors) represent an easy way for designers and teachers to categorize graphics they are using or intend to use in their course. In turn, this could lead to better designed courses that not only use graphics intended to increase student enjoyment, but relevant graphics that increase performance as well.