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Three Psychology Principles to Use for eLearning Design

The human mind is the most complex machine on the earth (BBC, 2014). It is our source of all thought and behaviour (BBC, 2014) and enables us to function as human beings.

The scientific study of psychology allows us to study how the human mind works, providing us, as learning practitioners, with the ability to create learning solutions that make sense and engage our learners.

Psychology plays a big part in a user’s experience with a learning solution. It enables us to understand how our learners will perceive the learning experience and in turn provides us with an opportunity to adjust the design to suit where necessary (Rigopoulos, 2017).

We have been on the lookout for psychological principles that can be used to create engaging and effective learning solutions and we are excited to say that we found some goodies! In this blog I will provide you with an overview of each psychological principal as well as tangible examples of how you can use each for your eLearning solutions. So, without further ado, here they are:

The Isolation Effect

“The Isolation Effect (also known as the Von Restorff Effect) is the tendency to recall something that stands out in a group and afford it more weighting than its peers” (How to Get Your Own Way, 2018).

In the case of an eLearning course, this means that when multiple similar objects are present on a screen, the one that differs most from the rest is remembered by the learner.

When you think about it, this is the case for many things. If you went to a different restaurant every night for a week and one of the restaurants had a waiter that wore a rainbow jumpsuit and rollerblades, it is likely the experience of this restaurant will be more memorable than others. If there were hundreds of yellow sticky notes on a wall and one of the sticky notes was pink, it is likely that sticky note would capture your attention first. You would read what was on it and therefore you would more than likely remember the content on that note over the others because it was ‘different’ and ‘stood out’.

Practical application:

In the case of eLearning design, think about the most important information for the learner on each screen. Rather than providing all of the screen content in the same format, tell the learner what is important and where their focus should be!

At Belvista Studios we want instructions to stand out on the screen so that the learner knows what to do next. We therefore ensure that our instruction text is formatted differently to the other text on the screen (italicized, bold etc.). As you can see in the screen example below, we have italicized the instruction text. This is a prime example of how we use the isolation effect in our learning design.

Example of the isolation effect being used in a Belvista Studios course.

The Law of Proximity

The Law of Proximity states that objects that are near or proximate to each other, tend to be grouped together (Rigopoulos, 2017). This means that our brain concludes that when objects are near each other in proximity that they must be part of a group. This is the natural tendency for our brain to best make sense of the information that we are presented with (Rigopoulos, 2017).

Practical application:

In the context of an eLearning course, it is therefore best to put objects of a similar nature near each other. This means making sure that there is enough space between the heading and body text and that the instructions for an action are close to where the action should take place. If your screen includes different topics, ensure that you group them in some way or form so that the learner can detect the difference in content and more easily digest it.

The example screen below shows how content can be grouped.

1. Heading.
2. Body text.
3. Buttons.
4. Button content.
Example of grouped content in a Belvista Studios course.

Hick’s Law

Hick’s law is based on the notion that the time it takes for a person to make a decision, is dependent on the amount of options they are provided (Kennedy, 2018). For example, imagine you go to a restaurant and are given a five-page menu of meals to choose from. Do you want a salad? A steak? Pasta? Seafood? You can imagine that this would take longer than being handed a small menu of five courses to choose from. When you are attending a restaurant, you may not mind taking the time to select your meal. However, what about when it comes to a decision in a learning experience?

Practical application:

When designing an eLearning course, aim to make the process as simple as possible for the learner. Be clear on the information that the learner needs to know. Referring back to the restaurant example, is it a five-page menu or could you cut it down to a choice of five meals? This doesn’t mean that you should eliminate large chunks of information that is important to the learning objectives of your course, it means that you should take the time to discover what is important and only include the information that the learner needs to know. This is where prioritising comes into play. When you are designing a question for your eLearning course, you don’t need to include every possible answer. Pick the top four options rather than the top 20. Don’t overwhelm your learner with options, provide them with a decision that requires a good level of thought.

As a psychology graduate, I can wholeheartedly say that understanding human behaviour and the workings of the human mind is critical to creating an effective learning experience. When we have a deep understanding of our end-user, we can create an experience that is valuable for them. Do you use psychological principles for your learning solutions? If so, how does it support you in creating effective learning solutions? If you want to chat more about this or get support for the projects you’re working on, contact our Founder, Kim Tuohy by emailing or through connecting with her on LinkedIn


BBC. (2014). Psychology – an overview. Retrieved from

How to Get Your Own Way. (2018). Isolation Effect. Retrieved from

Kennedy, B. (2018). Four Psychology Principals Every US Designer Should Know. Retrieved from

Rigopoulos, T. (2017). The Psychology Principles Every UI/UX Designer Needs to Know. Retrieved from

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