Context Animations can depict dynamic changes over time and location, and illustrate phenomena and concepts that might otherwise be difficult to visualise. However, animations may not always be effective and educators who use animations must understand the principles that govern their use. Objectives This review aims to illustrate potential applications of animations in medical education, to identify evidence-based principles for their design and use, and to propose an agenda for future research. Methods We searched MEDLINE, PsychINFO and EMBASE for articles describing the use of computer animations in medical education. We reviewed and summarised all identified original research studies comparing animations with an alternative computer-based or non-computer-based format. We also selectively reviewed non-medical education research on the use of computer animations. Results Medical educators have used animations in a variety of computer-assisted learning applications, but few comparative studies have been published and the evidence is inconclusive. Research outside medical education shows conflicting results for studies comparing animations with static images. This may reflect differences in cognitive load induced by animation, or differences in the type of motion being illustrated. The benefits of animations may also vary according to learner characteristics such as prior knowledge and spatial ability. Features of animation that appear to facilitate learning include permitting learner control over the animation's pace, allowing learners to interact with animations and splitting the animation activity into small chunks (segmenting). Conclusions Existing medical education research does little to inform the use of animations. Research is needed to confirm and extend non-medicine research to ascertain when to use animations and how to use them effectively.
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