Thursday, November 11, 2021

Clark - Learning science to practice

From a scientific background, Ruth Colvin Clark bridges learning science into practice in workplace learning. Her collaboration with Richard Mayer on e-Learning and the Science of Instruction (2002) is a landmark text in technology based learning design. She has written many other books under her own authorship. As an instructional psychologist her book Evidence Based Training Methods (2019) provides practical guidelines, especially for adult learning practitioners.

Evidence-based practice

Empirical, evidence-based medicine in the 1990s influenced the emergence of evidence based learning in training. However, there are still relatively few with an evidence-based background in the training profession and few have the time to scan the research. Ruth Clark therefore scans and disseminates the evidence in the form of good practice. She stresses that research evolves and that we should keep on top of recent findings. Above all she recommends that we appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of working and long-term memory. Much of what we know about learning that can be applied in design and practice comes down to an understanding of these channels. All media have strengths and weaknesses and she is in favour of ‘Blended learning’.  

In Developing Technical Training (1999), she follows a traditional taxonomy of learning to present what she considers the best training methods or learning environments.

Principles for design

With Mayer she sets out some underlying principles for guiding online learning design:

Coherence Principle

Well researched, it is always tempting to elaborate learning experiences such as overworked and illustrative graphics, also over-engineered or tangential stories. Design for what do people ‘need to know’ as opposed to what is ‘desirable to know’. Review, edit and cut down content, as most learners have limited time. In other words, avoid irrelevant graphics, stories or excessively lengthy text.

Segmenting Principle

Shorter topics and content are usually preferable.With experienced learners you need to chunk less but with novice learners and learners new to the content, chunk, use white space, bullet points, build your graphic step by step. Keep things as short as possible. This chunking also gives a sense of achievement in learning, a series of accomplishments. Start with a very short title or outline, this helps.

Graphics for learning

Graphics for learning: Proven guidelines for planning, designing, and evaluating visuals in training materials (2010) is an evidence-based approach to the use of graphics in learning, whether in print, slides or online learning. She discusses the most appropriate graphic approach by matching it to the type of learning and integrating graphics into the overall learning experience. Picking up on the principles of contiguity, coherence and redundancy, her advice is specific on text and graphics being better than text alone, but one can overcook graphics and using them to fill up space and eye candy is not advisable. A graphic is often explained by text and/or audio. Do NOT narrate screen text as it causes confusion and you can read a lot faster than a narrator.

Scenario-based learning

In her book Scenario-based e-learning: Evidence-based guidelines for online workforce learning (2012) she explains why scenario-based learning works for certain types of learning and can increase expertise, problem solving, critical thinking and transfer. She gives practical advice on its benefits, when to use this design method, how to set the goals, consider the types of learning needed, think about being task centered, then evaluate, even make a business case for scenario-based learning.


Clark is loyal to the research in cognitive science and instruction but some argue that her approach is still firmly in the formal learning camp, ignoring the fact that most learning takes place in other contexts, through more informal forms of learning.


With her co-author Richard Mayer, she has contributed greatly to the dissemination of evidence-based design of learning experiences. However, her focus has been more on the practical application of the science of learning and evidence for good practice as applied in the actual design process.


Clark, R.C., 2019. Evidence-based training methods: A guide for training professionals. American Society for Training and Development.

Clark, R.C. Harnessing the virtual classroom. (2012) Training & Development, 59 (11), 41-45. Available for download at 

Clark, R.C. and Mayer, R.E., 2012. Scenario-based e-learning: Evidence-based guidelines for online workforce learning. John Wiley & Sons.

Clark, R.C. and Lyons, C., 2010. Graphics for learning: Proven guidelines for planning, designing, and evaluating visuals in training materials. John Wiley & Sons.

Clark, R.C. and Mayer, R.E. (2002). E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer. 

Clark, R.C. (1999). Developing Technical Training: A Structured Approach for Developing Classroom and Computer-Based Instructional Materials. Silver Spring, MD: International Society for Performance Improvement.

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