How to effectively use animation in learning


nimation is a popular and highly effective tool for delivering information, particularly in eLearning. When used effectively, it’s a great way to engage learners and communicate ideas. 

Unfortunately, it can also be used poorly, leading to distraction, and even preventing the processing or recollection of new information.

How do you ensure your animations are effective, not detrimental? First, it’s critical to understand what makes animation unique and powerful. Then there are some common traps to avoid.

How animation in learning works

To explain how animation can enhance your digital learning strategy, we need to understand what makes it different from other eLearning assets.

There are three key elements that define animation:

  • Movement
  • Abstraction
  • Narrative


Movement, specifically the movement of drawings and designs, is what separates animation-based learning from other ways of presenting information. If your animation has no movement, it’s just a picture. 

Our eyes have two kinds of visual receptors: cones and rods. Cones can detect color, but require very high levels of light. Rods can’t detect color, but can detect very low levels of light. This allows us to notice movement even when it’s dark. The fact that we have around 20 times more rods than cones in our eyes makes our eyes highly attuned to movement, allowing us to spot potential predators even in dark or highly colorful environments.

The result is that movement acts as a powerful attention magnet, particularly when it tells a story or is accompanied by a voice over.


Abstraction is the process of removing details that aren’t important, like filtering out background noise. Abstraction is, in many ways, what separates animation from live action videos.

In an animation, a person could be represented by just a handful of lines i.e. a stick figure. A real person has many many more details, but we still recognise the stick figure as a human. By stripping out unnecessary, distracting details like pores and fingernails, we are forced to focus on what the person is doing or saying.

Researchers have found that gestures and facial expressions may enhance the learning experience, and abstraction allows the animator to distill these human expressions into simplified forms. This reduces the amount of unnecessary information that the learner needs to process, making animation a powerful learning tool.


Narrative can be defined as a series of connected events. As a moving, unfolding medium, animation is ideal for communicating narratives, or stories. This could be the story of a new employee’s experience in the workplace, or overcoming challenges.

Storytelling is another magnet for our attention. Stories allow your learner to make cognitive and emotional connections with the content in a process psychologists call assimilation. This makes the concepts taught through the story highly memorable and likely to influence future behavior and choices. 

A yellow and navy drawing of a hand pointing towards a laptop. Media icons burst off the screen.

Animation traps to avoid

Animation has many strengths, but it also comes with a set of traps to avoid.

The biggest problem with animation for learning is overuse. If animation is the only asset in your digital learning strategy, it will quickly lose its appeal and become background noise that learners filter out.

Cognitive overload

There are several ways that animation is a magnet for our attention, but when overused, this effect can easily become an exhausting mental burden that reduces engagement and retention. The same elements of movement and narrative that attract us also require more focus and attention to follow.

Likewise, if unnecessary, seductive details are left in the animation design, the learner’s focus can become split or overwhelmed, causing cognitive overload.


Movement adds to the effectiveness of animation for learning by attracting attention and emphasis. This makes it more likely to sit in your learner’s short-term memory than be committed to long-term memory, especially when they’re not already familiar with the concepts. 

Animations need to have follow up tasks or activities so the message is retained and reinforced for the best outcomes.


Animation allows information to be communicated visually and audibly, but this can be exclusive for people with visual, auditory or cognitive disabilities.

Animations should always come with easily locatable closed captions and transcripts, and should be enhanced with descriptions of visual content. However, while these measures are helpful, learning designers should not assume that they make the experience equal for all learners. Extensive use of animated videos in a learning experience is exhausting and exclusive for many learners with disabilities. 

How to use animation effectively

When considering animation, it’s critical to balance the three key elements (movement, abstraction, narrative) to optimize this medium for your digital learning strategy. 

Here are three tips for using animation in eLearning effectively.

#1 Focus on tangible processes

A meta-analysis of studies on learning-based animation found that animations demonstrating how to do something were more effective than those that only tried to teach abstract concepts.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever use animation for teaching concepts. Rather, ensure that the concepts are connected to tangible procedures and contexts.

The HowToo Xpert team used this approach when designing a series of animations for the New South Wales State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA). These public-facing animations began by explaining complex insurance concepts in simple language before explaining step-by-step processes such as how to claim personal injury benefits.


#2 Enable self-paced learning

There are several ways to combat information overload, but the most essential is to let your storytelling develop at a comfortable, learner-controlled pace. This means that the learner can stop or pause, rewind and revisit the content as they wish. 

Similarly, avoid animations longer than five minutes. Instead, break up longer animations into shorter videos that focus on just one or two concepts. This provides the learner with helpful places to take a break and refresh their attention if they need.

Lastly, wait at least 30 seconds before introducing a new concept in an animation. Avoid overwhelming learners with too much information in too-short an animation.

#3 Employ symbolism

The process of abstraction doesn’t just allow us to remove unnecessary details, it also allows us to tap into symbolism to create additional meaning.

Consider how you can use shapes, colors and transitions in the design of your animation to communicate your concepts. 

Symbolism should be used carefully however, as some symbols may have different meanings in different cultures. Furthermore, any visual symbol should be noted and explained in accompanying audio descriptions so that important information is not hidden from learners with visual impairments.

Engage your learners with animation

Animations can be deeply enjoyable learning experiences for your learners and are highly effective for teaching when delivered appropriately throughout an eLearning course.

Interested in incorporating animation in your next eLearning project? The HowToo Xpert team has extensive experience in designing animations for online learning. Reach out to the team today to start a conversation about how they can support your project.

Meet HowToo Xpert: Your 360 degree eLearning creative agency. Learn more.
Oct 26, 2022

More from 



View All

Get the latest posts to your inbox every month!

No spam ever. Read our Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.