Multimedia learning material

Tim van der Zee

Multimedia materials such as videos and interactive webpages have become increasingly popular. When used in education it is important that the quality of such materials are assessed, and if possible enhanced. Here we will first briefly review some literature on how multimedia information is processed, followed by several guidelines for high quality multimedia materials.

Cognitive architecture and information processing

An essential characteristic of the human cognitive architecture is that not every type of information is processed in an identical way. Working memory is characterized by having two separate channels for auditory and visual information, each with a limited capacity for information, which can only hold information chunks for a limited time before they decay (Baddeley, 2003). During learning tasks, working memory acts as a bottleneck for processing novel information; As more cognitive load is imposed on the learner, less cognitive resources are available for the integration of information into long-term memory, effectively impairing learning (Ginns, 2006) (Sweller, Van Merrienboer, & Paas, 1998). For novel information, the cognitive resources required for processing appears to primarily be dictated by measurable attributes of the information-in-the-world such as the amount of words and their interactivity (Sweller, 2010). However, knowledge held in long-term memory, called schemas, can hold large amounts of information which impose little cognitive load when they operate in working memory (Sweller et al., 1998). The automated application and processing of these schemas is what allows experts to solve relatively complex problems with minimal effort and effectively bypass the limitations of working memory (Diana, Reder, Arndt, & Park, 2006). In contrast, novices lack these high-level schemas so that their learning is bottle-necked by the limited processing capacity of working memory. The limited capacity of working memory has important implications for education, including how educational materials should be designed. Each design principles presented in the rest of this paper is aimed at reducing unnecessary cognitive load for the learners so that more capacity remains for learning. These design principles are focused on novice learners only, as experts with more prior knowledge process information differently and require a different kind of instruction (Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, & Sweller, 2003).

Modality of information

Videos typically make use of several sources of information: spoken word, non-textual visual information, and written word. Although using multiple modalities is generally more effective for learning than relying on only one (Mayer, 2003), care should be taken not to cause cognitive overload. When two sources of information are presented in the same modality this will typically cause a split-attention effect (Kalyuga, Chandler, & Sweller, 1999). This is why it is generally inadvisable to present multiple chuncks of information in the same modality, such as simultaneously having tables, text, as well as subtitles in a video. Thus, when there is relevant visual information onscreen it is important to give the explanations verbally instead of textually (Moreno, Mayer, Spires, & Lester, 2001). Not surprisingly, this becomes even more important when the video is more complex (Ginns, 2005).

Design Principle 1: Distribute information across modalities

Amount of information

Sometimes, teachers want to add irrelevant but attractive details which are supposed to make a course more exciting or entertaining. For example, when explaining how lighting storms work, you could add entertaining but irrelevant factoids about lighting strikes or show pictures of amazing thunderstorms. However, such extraneous materials hamper learning substantially (Mayer, 2003). Although such additions may in same cases increase student’s perception of how entertaining the video is they have a profound negative effect  on the main goal of instructional videos: learning. A similar effect is seen for relevant but redundant information, for example when the same information is presented both as written text as well as spoken word. Although identical information-wise, both sources have to processed by the learners, which causes redundant cognitive load, which hinders learning (Mayer, 2008).

Design Principle 2: Do not use irrelevant or redundant information

Guiding attention

When unfamiliar with a topic it is often hard to understand the relative importance of different concepts. As such, instructors are advised to use attentional cues to guide the students’ attention. Such signals are not only helpful for selecting information, it also aids the organization and integration of different elements (Ozcelik, Arslan-Ari, & Cagiltay, 2010). When pictures are annotated with written text, the spatial distance between the text and the corresponding area in the picture should be minimal (Mayer, 2008). Likewise, the temporal distance between an explanation and its referent(s) should be minimal or non-existent (Mayer, 2008). The explanation for both principles is that a longer distance between a header and its referent requires more cognitive load to hold the information as well as causing a split-attention effect (Mayer & Moreno, 1998).

Design Principle 3: Make use of attentional cues

Design Principle 4: Minimize spatial and temporal distances

Complex multimedia materials

Sometimes students need to learn a highly complex chunk of information which consists of many interacting elements, for example a blood flow diagram of the heart or a complex electrical engineering circuit. When not already familiar with it, students show great difficulty processing and learning from such presentations; it is better to first teach them about the individual elements in isolation (Mayer, Mathias, & Wetzell, 2002). After such pre-training, the individual components are known by the students and thus require little to no cognitive resources to operate in working memory. This will make them much more able to process the relations and interactivity between the elements, which is often essential in order to understand the bigger picture.

Design Principle 5: Use pre-training and segment large chunks of information


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