Contiguity Principle

Align words to corresponding graphics
Simply stated, the contiguity principle is "align words to corresponding graphics" (Clark & Mayer, 2011). This means that a graphic that is the major subject of text should not be physically separated from the text. The contiguity principle as stated implies that just words need to be aligned, however audio should also be aligned temporally with graphics that correspond with the audio. One example is that when a graphic includes a diagram which has parts indicated by text, the text should be physically near the corresponding parts of the diagram (Clark & Mayer, 2011). 

Examples of Violations of the Contiguity Principle

This principle may seem simple and intuitive, however there are a wide variety of examples of violations of this principle. Clark and Mayer (2011) provide several such examples including:
  • A separation of text and graphics because of the need to scroll from one to the other on a computer screen (commonly found on instructional web pages)
  • Separation of quiz questions from feedback - often feedback is provided on a page separate from the quiz question to which it is referring, making it more difficult for the learner to relate the feedback to the quiz response
  • Separation of a main lesson page and linked windows that pop up, obscuring the main lesson page (this is a violation of the contiguity principle if the pop-up window refers to information on the main lesson page)
  • The presentation of exercise directions (such as click here, then click here) which is separate from the exercise itself - This requires the learner to hold exercise directions in working memory until they are able to execute the directions on a separate screen and is a violation of the contiguity principle
  • Captions at the bottom of full screens of graphics - This requires the learner to refer to the text at the bottom of the screen to make sense of the graphic, a practice which makes the learner scan back and forth from the text to the graphic to the text again and again
  • Simultaneous display of text and related animations - This requires the learner to scan back and forth between the text and the animation which may cause them to miss certain aspects of the animation as they read the text or vice versa
  • Using a graphic legend to show the parts of the graphic - Similar to the problem of providing captions at the bottom of a full screen of graphics, a legend requires the learner to remember a number or letter for each part and look up the name or information for the part in a separate location
  • A temporal separation of graphics and narration - this requires the learner to use limited working memory to remember narration or graphics while the other is being presented
Studies that Support the Contiguity Principle

A variety of studies support the contiguity principle. For instance Moreno and Mayer (1999) found that students learned better when text and animations were placed close to one another than when these were placed far from each other. In a separate study reported in the same publication (Moreno & Mayer, 1999), narration was presented to students simultaneously with animations and temporally separate to the animations. Students in the simultaneous narration and animation condition learned better than students in the temporally separate condition. Florax and Ploetzner (2010) discovered similar findings in learning as measured by retention tests in which students received instruction that either spatially separated or integrated text and graphics. 

Critique of the Contiguity Principle

A literature search resulted in no studies that demonstrate superior learning when text and graphics (or narration and graphics) are separated. However, more research is needed to show longer-term results of the separation of graphics and text in multimedia learning. Many of the studies conducted on the contiguity principle involve small sample sizes and short treatment time lengths (e.g., Moreno & Mayer, 1999; Mayer, Steinhoff, Bower & Mars, 1995). 

  • Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2011). E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Florax, M. & Ploetzner, R. (2010). What contributes to the split-attention effect? Role of text segmentation, picture labeling, and spatial proximity. Learning and Instruction, 20, 216-224.
  • Mayer, R.E., Steinhoff, K., Bower, G., & Mars, R. (1995). A generative theory of textbook design: Using annotated illustrations to foster meaningful learning of science text. Educational Technology Research and Development, 43, 31-43.
  • Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (1999). Cognitive principles of multimedia learning: The role of modality and contiguity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 358-368.
Examples of the Contiguity Principle

In the above example, the contiguity principle is followed because the labels for the parts of the brain are placed physically near the parts of the brain to which they correspond. 

In the above example, the contiguity principle is violated because the labels indicating the parts of the brain are physically separated from the image of the brain.