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12 Principles of Multimedia Learning

Posted on: February 23rd, 2015 by Jennifer Bland

Designing learning experiences in both face-to-face and virtual worlds are more similar than you may think, but there are a few obvious differences.  So, you may be wondering…How does designing a lesson for my online class differ from designing one for my brick and mortar class? To help you see the differences, I recommend taking a quick peek at Richard E. Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning from his book, Multimedia Learning.

In the coming months, I will present each principle individually in greater detail and give you examples of how to use each principle in the development of your online courses.

Before you can truly grasp the 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning, you must understand the three important assumptions that form the foundation of these principles.  Mayer developed a theory for cognition centered on multimedia known as the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML).  Built into the foundation of his theory is the knowledge of how people learn.  There are three assumptions about how people learn that must be taken into account when developing instruction:

  • Dual Channels
  • Limited Processing Capacity
  • Active Processing

Cognative Theory of Multimedia Learning

The dual channel assumption states that humans possess two channels for processing information: 1) visually represented material; 2) auditorially represented material – what they see and hear.  Designers of learning take this knowledge of how people learn into account when they are developing a learning session or environment by presenting the material both visually and auditory.  Essentially, they double the chance for the learner to learn.

The limited processing capacity assumption states that humans are limited in the amount of information that can be processed in each channel at one time.  Research shows that humans have an average memory span that is relatively small – approximately five to seven chunks – plus or minus two.  Maybe this is why telephone numbers are 7 digits in length and social security numbers are 9 digits in length.  Designers of learning use this knowledge of limited capacity to make important decisions about the amount of content shown to learners at one time.

The active processing assumption states that humans actively engage in cognitive processing in order to construct a coherent mental representation of their experiences.  When designers of learning use this knowledge of active processing, they focus on how to ensure learners are paying attention to the right information and organizing the incoming information.  They also focus on how to help their learners integrate the incoming information with what they already know.  Humans are active processors – not empty vessels for designers of learning to simply pour their knowledge.  Designers of learning take great care when deciding how to actively engage their learners with the content presented.

Let’s take a brief look at each principle of multimedia learning.

  • Multimedia Principle – People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.  Accessing both channels doubles the chances the learner will retain the information presented.
  • Coherence Principle – Learning improves when extraneous material is excluded rather than included. Learning is improved when interesting but irrelevant words, pictures, sounds, music, and  symbols are eliminated from the lesson.
  • Signaling Principle – People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.  Inserting cues that direct the learner’s attention toward the essential material is key to reducing extraneous processing, or cognitive overload.
  • Redundancy Principle – People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration, and printed text. Redundancy creates cognitive overload by having to visually scan between pictures and on-screen text which can also tire the learner mentally.
  • Spatial Contiguity Principle – Learning improves when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen. Keeping corresponding words and pictures close together reduces cognitive load by reducing the mental effort needed to scan and search the page/screen and allows both to be held in the working memory at the same time.
  • Temporal Contiguity Principle – Learning improves when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively. When the animation/image and the narration/words are presented to the learner at different times, it is more difficult for the learner to create mental representations and the working memory is quickly overloaded.  To increase the likelihood that your learners build the appropriate mental representations, it is important to present the animation and narration (or text and image) to the learner at the same time.
  • Segmenting Principle – People learn better when a multimedia message is presented in user-paced segments rather than a continuous unit. When presenting learners with a series of steps to a process, it is best to break the lesson down into smaller steps so the learner can grasp one step before moving on to the next step.  This allows the learner to have control over when to move to the next step through the use of a continue or next button.
  • Pre-training Principle – People learn more deeply from a multimedia message when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts. This principle is best used when the material presented is complex or fast-paced, and when the learner is unfamiliar with the content.
  • Modality Principle – People learn more deeply from pictures and spoken words than from pictures and printed words. The use of pictures and printed words overloads the visual channel of the cognitive processing system and reduces learning.  Using spoken words offloads the visual channel and makes excellent use of the auditory channel reducing cognitive overload.
  • Personalization Principle – People learn better from multimedia presentations when words are in conversational style rather than formal style. Personalization involves using “you” and “your” in the narration rather than “the.”  Learners are more likely to try harder and engage at a deeper level when they see the author as a conversational partner.
  • Voice Principle – Learning is improved when the words in a multimedia message are spoken by a friendly human voice rather than by a machine voice. It gives the learner a sense that someone is talking directly to them.
  • Image Principle – Learners do not necessarily learn more deeply from a multimedia presentation when the speaker’s image is on the screen rather than not on the screen. This would also include the use of pedagogical agents, or characters.

Each of Mayer’s principles is supported with numerous empirical studies.  Please look for future postings that will address each principle in greater detail as well as provide practical tips for how to apply these effectively in your course design.  For additional information, please refer to Mayer’s book, Multimedia Learning – 2nd Edition.

All information in this post is the work of Richard E. Mayer.
Mayer, R. (2009).  Multimedia learning.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.