How do people learn from multimedia instructional materials? Richard E. Mayer (2008) has developed a cognitive theory of multimedia learning that explains and predicts many of the behaviors and conditions that facilitate learning and enhance performance. And he has derived several principles that help teachers and other practitioners decide how to effectively use multimedia.
Mayer's cognitive theory of multimedia learning is based on information-processing theory, and it is predicated on three major assumptions:
- Dual channels: People possess two separate sensory information channels. The verbal channel processes words, and the visual channel processes images.
- Limited capacity: Each sensory information channel is able to process a limited amount of information at any given time.
- Active learning: People produce new knowledge when they select relevant information, organize it in a meaningful way, and integrate it with prior knowledge.
See the video for more information. First, the components of the learning system are described. And second, how the components interact during the learning process is illustrated.
Please select a section below to learn more about the principles derived from the theory, the principles' effectiveness, and how the principles relate to recommendations from the Institute of Education Sciences.
Mayer offers a number of principles to guide decision-making about instruction. The four principles listed below relate directly to the role of multimedia in instruction.
Click on a principle to reveal a description. Click again to hide the description.
Learning improves because multimedia facilitate integration and promote the formation of rich mental models. Some types of images also enhance selection and organization of relevant information.
Be aware that unnecessary or irrelevant images actually impede learning because they distract learners.
Video Connection: Note that the Flash presentation above makes use of both words and explanatory images. Without a visual representation of the learning system and its components, viewers would struggle to understand the learning process. Given the complexity of the material, text alone would provide an inadequate representation of the learning process.
Learning improves because contiguity facilitates selection of relevant information. Contiguity minimizes the need to search for and mentally connect separate, but related pieces of information.
Contiguity is essential for complex material. It is less important for simple material, but still recommended.
Video Connection: Note that in the Flash presentation, both spatial and temporal contiguity are applied. In the "Components" section, relevant text appears next to a component of the learning system when the user hovers over the shape representing that component. (See the image above.) And in the "Process" section, relevant narration is spoken as the learning process unfolds and the components interact.
Learning improves because narration facilitates active learning. People possess two sensory information channels, verbal and visual, and they can utilize both channels simultaneously. They can select, organize, and integrate verbal and visual information at the same time. In short, they can look and listen. On the other hand, people cannot simultaneously examine an image and read text about the image.
Modality is less important in a self-paced learning environment in which a student can freely read and review text.
Video Connection: Note how text and narration are used in the Flash presentation, depending on the complexity of the material and level of the learning objectives. In the self-paced "Components" section, which merely describes each component of the learning system, text is used. The objective is to help students construct knowledge. But in the "Process" section, which depicts a complex process, narration is used to explain the interaction of the components. The objectives are to help viewers understand the process and then apply it to real instructional scenarios. (See the image above.)
Learning improves with narration alone because redundant text interferes with selection and overburdens the visual channel. Moreover, students may feel compelled to compare narration and text to determine whether they match. If there are discrepancies, they may try to determine the reason. This is a waste of cognitive resources.
Refraining from redundancy is less important in a self-paced learning environment in which a student can freely read and review text.
Video Connection: Note that in the Flash presentation above, either text or narration is used at any given point. In the "Process" section, which contains a lot of narration, text is used sparingly. It is only used to label the shapes and emphasize the names of the three major learning processes: selection, organization, and integration.
Mayer's multimedia learning principles have been verified through extensive experimental research. This research is summarized in Clark and Mayer's E-Learning and the Science of Instruction (2011).
Click on a principle to reveal a summary of the research. Click again to hide the summary. To view a table that will help you interpret the effect sizes, click the button below.
The results of a subset of these studies revealed that novices strongly benefit from the incorporation of multimedia into lessons while experts perform well regardless. In E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Mayer explained, "Apparently, more experienced learners are able to create their own mental images…whereas the less experienced learners need help in relating the text to a useful pictorial representation" (p. 83). But of course, in most instructional environments students are novices, not experts.
The researcher selected studies with an experimental design and quantitative results that would facilitate calculation of effect sizes. Most studies reported achievement on near-transfer tests, but several reported other measures such as time to solution or secondary task performance.
Ginns weighted study effect size by sample size. In other words, an effect from a large study exerted a greater influence on the mean effect size than an effect from a small study. (Note: Weighting tended to slightly depress effect sizes.)
Ginns reported the following results:
- For achievement on a transfer test, the weighted mean effect size for spatial contiguity and temporal contiguity combined was 0.80. The typical contiguity student scored at the 79th percentile on the transfer test whereas the typical control student scored at the 50th percentile. This is a strong effect.
- Across achievement measures, the weighted mean effect size for complex materials was half a standard deviation greater than the effect size for simple materials (0.78 and 0.28, respectively). This is a large difference. See the diagram.
On a side note, testing environment significantly impacted weighted mean effect size, but Ginns asserted, "The benefits of reducing split attention are…apparent using the tight experimental control possible under one-on-one testing, and the more ecologically valid conditions found under group testing [0.89 and 0.65, respectively]" (p. 523).
Ginns reported the following results:
- For achievement on a transfer test, the weighted mean effect size for modality was 0.76. The typical modality student (who viewed a narrated presentation) scored at the 78th percentile on the transfer test whereas the typical control student (who viewed a text-based presentation) scored at the 50th percentile. This is a fairly strong effect.
- Across achievement measures, the weighted mean effect size for complex material was about half a standard deviation greater than the effect size for simple material (0.62 and 0.10, respectively). This is a large difference. See the diagram.
- Across achievement measures, the weighted mean effect size for system-paced materials was more than one standard deviation greater than the effect size for self-paced materials (0.93 and -0.14, respectively). This is a large difference. See the diagram.
Self-pacing appears to obviate the need for narration, but Ginns emphasized, "Students do not have an infinite amount of time to learn any given concept or skill, and many things must be learned according to strict deadlines…the modality effect may disappear or reverse under self-paced conditions, but system-paced instructional conditions may be closer to the norm of educational practice" (p. 327).
The same year Mayer carried out a more stringent meta-analysis, which excluded unpublished studies such as conference papers and theses. He selected 21 studies, and he obtained a median effect size of 0.97. The typical modality student scored at the 83rd percentile on the transfer test whereas the typical control student scored at the 50th percentile. This is a strong effect.
Mayer et al.'s studies confirmed and expanded upon the results of a small study performed by Kalyuga, Chandler, and Sweller in 1999. Kalyuga et al.'s study involved self-paced presentations with diagrams and narration.
IES Practice Guide
In 2007 the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the US Department of Education's research center, published a practice guide by Pashler et al. entitled Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. The purpose of an IES practice guide is to offer concrete recommendations that are feasible, evidence-based, and coherent.
The practice guide makes seven recommendations. One of the recommendations is based upon the research of Mayer and his colleagues throughout the world:
|Recommendation||Level of Evidence||Related Mastery Learning Practice(s)|
|1. Space learning over time.||Moderate||N/A|
|2. Interleave worked example solutions with problem-solving exercises.||Moderate||Both: Following Assessment A, teachers provide worked examples (e.g. demonstrations and/or answer keys with worked answers). Remedial students perform targeted activities prior to Assessment B.|
|3. Combine graphics with verbal descriptions.||Moderate||N/A|
|4. Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts.||Moderate||N/A|
|5a. Quizzing: Use pre-questions to introduce a new topic.||Low||N/A|
|5b. Quizzing: Use quizzes to re-expose students to key content.||Strong||Both: Teachers offer students who score below the mastery level on Quiz A an opportunity to take Quiz B, a parallel quiz.
Bloom's LFM: Teachers are encouraged to select a few important questions from past units' quizzes and place them on the current unit's quizzes.
|6a. Self-Management: Teach students how to use delayed judgments of learning to identify content that needs further study.||Low||N/A|
|6b. Self-Management: Use tests and quizzes to identify content that needs to be learned.||Low||Both: Both teachers and students use Quiz A to diagnose student learning needs. Students then perform targeted remedial activities in preparation for Quiz B.
Bloom's LFM: Teachers reteach difficult concepts, procedures, processes, etc.
|7. Ask deep explanatory questions.||Strong||Both: Teachers align objectives, instruction, and assessment.
Bloom's LFM: When designing each unit, teachers are encouraged to use Bloom's Taxonomy, which promotes high-level objectives.