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Cognitive theory of multimedia learning

“People learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone”.

The quote above is true ... however, just putting text and pictures together does not necessarily make for effective learning.

When we are using a variety of media in our teaching (test, images, video, interaction), we need to consider the best way for students to learn.

The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning gives guidance for informed multimedia instructional messages.

This theory is based on three assumptions:

  • Humans have separate channels for processing visual and auditory information (dual channels)
  • Humans are limited in the amount of information that can be processed in each channel at one time (limited capacity)
  • Humans engage in active learning by attending to relevant incoming information, organising selected information into coherent mental representations, and integrating mental representations with other knowledge (active processing)

For example, information presented to a student using both auditory (narration) and visual (text) displays requires the student to process this information using both channels. However, the student's ability to process is limited. If a students is receiving information from both channels, his or her mind is forced to be selective with the information it chooses to keep, and which bits of information he or she should make connections between.

Putting it into practice: Instructional goals for multimedia instruction

The table below offers a brief overview of three instructional goals in multimedia learning, bearing in mind the assumptions we discussed above. You might find it useful to consider the various techniques listed in the third column when creating a multimedia learning activity.

Interesting resource

Mayer, R 2014, 'Cognitive theory of multimedia learning', Richard Mayer, The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia LearningCambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 43-71


Representative technique

Description of technique

Minimize extraneous processing

Coherence principle

Eliminate extraneous (non-relevant) material


Signaling principle

Highlight essential material


Redundancy principle

Do not add printed text to spoken text


Spatial contiguity

Place printed text near corresponding graphic          


Temporal contiguity principle

Present narration and the corresponding graphic simultaneously

Manage essential processing

Segmenting principle

Break a presentation into parts


Pre-training principle

Describe names and characteristics of key elements before the lesson


Modality principle

Use spoken rather than printed text


Multimedia principle

Use words and pictures together rather than words alone

Foster generative processing

Personalization principle

Put words in conversational style


Voice principle

Use human voice for spoken words


Embodiment principle

Give on-screen characters humanlike gestures


Guided discovery principle

Provide hints and feedback as learner solves problems


Self-explanation principle

Ask learners to explain a lesson to themselves


Drawing principle

Ask learners to make drawings for the lesson


Adapted from: Mayer, R 2014, Cognitive theory of multimedia learning, Richard Mayer, The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 43-71