Last month’s column introduced Richard Mayer’s “SOI” Model, which suggests that we help learners select important information, organize it into meaningful wholes, and integrate into the bigger picture of application or generalization. As we saw last month, the “select” component directs designers to pare down and focus on key ideas and make information clearer through thoughtful use of fonts, highlighting, white space, etc. We also looked at the problem of overdesign and recognizing that design is done when there’s nothing left to take out.

The next phase in the SOI model is “organize.” Most slide-based authoring tools, and old habits, have forced us into bulleted lists on screens and linear navigation. How can we help the learner make sense of what she’s seeing? How can we help him organize new information in a meaningful way, what Mayer calls a “coherent representation”?

Try to show relationships. Offer content as comparison, classification, generalization, or cause-effect. Use outlines, headings, and advance organizers, like the one shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Example of a course advance organizer

Recognize that while bullets do a lot for highlighting items, they don’t really do much to help the learner structure information. We don’t want learners to just see that there is a list of elements, but to help him build structural relationships among those elements.

Figure 2 shows some easy alternatives to bullets:

Figure 2: Some types of organizing formats

Beware of accidentally setting up false organization, or doing something that suggests to the learner an organization that is not there. A slide like the one in Figure 3 crossed my path recently: It’s meant to represent eight steps in a process, but it took me awhile to figure that out. On first seeing it I thought it showed two parallel processes.

Figure 3: False organization looks like two parallel processes, not eight steps 

An introductory slide showing the headings for the eight steps in a sequence would have helped. There are any number of ways to show “eight steps”; see Figure 4. 

Figure 4: Ways of representing “eight steps”

Just numbering the original (Figure 5) would have made the organization of content clearer:

Figure 5: Numbering items conveys idea of sequence

Remember, when designing in ways that most help the learner, look for ideas that help you convey relationships, interrelationships, sequence, and importance. The goal is not to create a representation of the material that is pretty, but to create material that helps the learner make sense of it.


For more on organizing information see Connie Malamed,

Mayer, R. E. “Designing Instruction for Constructivist Learning.” Instructional-design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.

Mayer, R. E., William Bove, Alexandra Bryman, Rebecca Mars, and Lene Tapangco. “When Less Is More: Meaningful Learning from Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lessons.” Journal of Educational Psychology 88. 1996.

Some material originally appeared in Bozarth, J., Better Than Bullet Points: Creating Engaging eLearning with PowerPoint. San Francisco: Wiley, 2013.