Ask us
 Tell us 

Cognitive theory of multimedia learning

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

The quote above is true ... however, it's important to remember that just putting text and pictures together doesn't necessarily make for effective learning.

If you are using a variety of media in your teaching (test, images, video, interaction), you 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:

  1. Every humans has two separate channels for processing visual and auditory information (dual channels)
  2. Humans can only process a certain amount of information in each channel at one time (that is, they have limited capacity)
  3. Humans learn actively by paying attention to incoming information, organising selected information into undertandable mental representations, and integrating those representations with other knowledge (active processing)

For example, if a student is presented with an auditory information display (narration) at the same time as a visual information display (text), then the student will need to process this information using both channels. 

However, in accordance with Priniple 2 above, the student's ability to process is limited. Therefore, the student's brain is forced to be selective with the information it chooses to keep, and which bits of information to 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. 


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

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