Research Brief: Animations versus Static Paper-based Diagrams

Which is better, (1) computer-based animations with audio narration or (2) paper-based diagrams with text narratives?

Suppose further that the animations and diagrams equalized as much as possible the amount of visual information presented, and the words in the narration and text were identical. In other words, the comparison was fair.

Suppose also that the content areas in the learning materials dealt with dynamic spatial causation, utilizing topics seemingly appropriate for dynamic graphical displays. Specifically, the topic areas included:

  • How lightning forms.
  • How a toilet works.
  • How ocean waves work.
  • How a car’s braking system works.

Suppose also that the tests queried learners on retention and transfer? In other words, to gauge their memory, learners were asked questions such as, “Please write down an explanation of how lightning works,” and to assess transfer, they were asked, “What could you do to decrease the intensity of a lightning storm?”

Under those conditions, which would produce the best learning on the questions asked?

A. Animations with audio narration.
B. Paper-based diagrams with text narratives.
C. Both would produce equal learning benefits.

Richard Mayer, Mary Hegarty, Sarah Mayer, and Julie Campbell (all of the University of California at Santa Barbara) created four experiments that attempted to answer this question. Given that each experiment had two comparisons (retention and transfer), they ended up with eight comparisons.

The results were clear. In not one case did the computer-based animations outperform the static paper-based depictions!! In four of the eight cases, the static diagrams outperformed the animations, and in the other four cases, the differences were not statistically significant. The animation conditions never outperformed the paper-based conditions.

The average percentage difference (for the paper-based depictions compared with the animation depiction) was 27% (with the average Cohen’s d effect size of 0.68, a moderately high magnitude difference). The animation conditions never outperformed the paper-based conditions.

The Authors’ Explanations of these Remarkable Findings

For many of us, this result is non-intuitive. Why would paper-based diagrams outperform animations? Although the authors of the research paper make some conjectures, their experiments don’t really shed light on this question. The experiments simply compare animations to paper-based depictions.

The authors suggest that paper-based depictions may have outperformed the animation-based depictions because (described in detail on page 264):

  1. The paper-based depictions involve simultaneous presentation of the graphical illustrations, whereas the animation-based depictions presented the graphical content in a chronological flow with no simultaneity.
  2. The paper-based materials enable learner control through pacing and eye movements, whereas the animations do not.
  3. The paper-based materials are purposely segmented into meaningful units showing crucial states of the system, whereas the animation presents the diagrams in one continuous flow.
  4. The paper-based materials utilize printed words, whereas the animation condition uses audio narration.
  5. The paper-based materials are presented on paper, whereas the animation materials are presented on a computer screen.

In future experiments, these things will need to be varied to determine the actual cause of the differences. Specifically, it would be helpful for e-learning designers to know the relative effectiveness of animations that also show crucial states of the system and enable more learner control.

Other Caveats and Shortcomings

Skeptical instructional designers may wonder about the target audience. Could it be, for example, that these results aren’t relevant for young adults (those who have great experience in using computers)? This worry seems misplaced. The learners in these experiments were all young college students, with an average age about 19 years old. On the other hand, 82% of the learners were women, suggesting that the results may not apply to men.

I worry about the short retention interval. As in most of Mayer’s experiments, immediate tests of retention and transfer are used. In other words, the students encounter the learning material and then are immediately tested on it. This should make us wonder whether the differences between animation and static images would survive the vagaries of cognitive forgetting processes. It might be true for example, that static images help for short retention intervals and animations help for longer—more realistic—retention intervals.

The experiments also use very short learning events—seven minutes or less in length, with some learning sessions lasting only a minute or two. This tends to limit the generalizability of the results. Real-world instructional designers are apt to question these results by noting that animations may energize learners to pay attention to e-learning courses that take, say, 30 minutes or more, whereas static animations are less likely to produce this energizing effect. So while static graphics may work for five-minute snippets of learning, more authentic learning events may benefit from animations.

Despite these major limitations, the findings are compelling. They show, at the very least, that in micro-learning situations, animations may not be as obvious a choice as we might have believed.

The experimental results also are partly consistent with a recent review of the research literature which found no difference in learning results between animations and paper-based depictions (Tversky, Morrison, & Betrancourt, 2002). Neither the current study or the review of the literature found any advantage for animations.

Again, it could be that well-designed animations have a facilitative effect. On the other hand, it appears that more research is needed to uncover principles that outline effective animation design.

Will’s Recommendations for Instructional Designers/Developers:

  1. If possible, utilize evidence-based instructional-design practices to experiment with different animation designs (to see which work for your content, your learners, and your delivery methods). Specifically, compare static graphics to animations and compare different animation designs.
  2. As a first cut in designing animations, enable learners to control the movement from one crucial system state to the next.
  3. As a first cut in designing animations, utilize audio narration, but also provide a text version that can be read separately (not simultaneously).
  4. Consider utilizing the spacing effect by presenting both a dynamic animation and a later static depiction with simultaneous text presentation. The second depiction, because it enables studying, could be utilized with some augmenting questions or exercises to get the learners to think deeply about the dynamic flow of events. Also consider alternating between dynamic and static depictions or presenting the static one before the dynamic.


Mayer, R. E.; Hegarty, M.; Mayer, S.; Campbell, J. (2005). When Static Media Promote Active Learning: Annotated Illustrations Versus Narrated Animations in Multimedia Instruction. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 11, 256-265.

Tversky, B.; Morrison, J. B.; Betrancourt, M. (2002). Animation: Can it facilitate? International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 57, 247-262.

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