[Series: Influential Educators] Richard Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Our basic premise with multimedia learning is that we can learn more deeply from words and pictures together than we can from just words alone. This basic premise might explain why so many people are able to pick up new hobbies or learn new skills from YouTube videos. When learning to knit, the video of an expert knitter creating a scarf along with their verbal explanation helps a novice understand and learn.

The basic principle seems so simple and obvious that we automatically choose textbooks that are filled with charts, diagrams, maps, and pictures, and is also the reason that we use PowerPoint, Prezi, or videos in our lectures. But there is a caution to multimedia learning: all uses of multimedia are not equally effective for the learner. To understand how we can most effectively use multimedia instruction, we turn to an expert, Dr. Richard E. Mayer.

Richard E. Mayer earned his Ph.D. in psychology in 1973 from the University of Michigan. He served as a professor of psychology at Indiana University from 1973 to 1975 and then moved to the University of California at Santa Barbara where he continues to serve as a professor of psychology. Mayer is most known for his work in educational psychology. His most significant works deal with problem solving and multimedia learning. With his work in multimedia learning, Mayer developed the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning to explain how multimedia learning works and how we can best use it. He published his theory in a chapter of the same title in The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning.

Two Channels and How They Work

The first step to understanding why multimedia learning can be so powerful is understanding how the brain processes information. Mayer explains that the brain takes in information and processes it in multiple channels, based on how that information is presented. The first channel is for visually represented material and the second is for auditorily represented material. When a learner is presented visual information, including pictures, videos, charts, or printed words, all of that information goes into the visual channel and is processed there. Auditory information includes spoken words in a narration and other non-verbal sounds, and these are processed by the brain separately from the visual.

As a learner is learning, the new material first gets logged in their sensory memory. For a brief moment, the image is captured in its entirety, or the spoken words are logged in their entirety. After that initial moment, the learner must begin to work with the information in order to process it and learn. This happens in the working memory.

With two separate channels, the learner is able to work with more information because the varying presentations of material are processed differently. In working memory, the learner can choose relevant images to remember and work with, and they can choose relevant words to remember and work with. Each of these sets of information are processed and organized into models that help the reader understand and remember the information. While in the working memory, the information remains separate and the learner generates two models.

Finally, the learner integrates the visual model and the auditory model together with their prior knowledge and experiences. Once all the material has been combined in a functional way, the new knowledge can move into long-term memory.

Multimedia instruction helps students learn more deeply because it takes advantage of these two separate channels and allows the student to go through the process of making multiple models to really understand the material that is presented to them.

How Can We Effectively Use Multimedia Instruction

With the understanding of how the brain processes information, it is clear why we want to incorporate multimedia learning. But we want to use it most effectively. In addition to explaining how the brain processes multimedia information, Mayer explains how to best incorporate multimedia learning.

He starts by reminding us that multimedia learning simply incorporates words and pictures, so it can be a chapter in a textbook that includes pictures or charts. It can also be online lessons that incorporate videos.

Mayer’s first advice for multimedia learning is a caution that he calls the “limited capacity assumption.” The assumption is that all humans have a limited capacity for information. We don’t have infinite space and memory processors, so we have to choose what pieces of information to pay attention to. The caution warns us that we should not overwhelm our students with information. One way to apply this is to limit the amount of text on a PowerPoint slide. Your presentation will be more effective to the learner if you have a limited number of printed words, a simpler picture, and a clear spoken narration.

Mayer’s second piece of advice revolves around the “active processing assumption.” As we discussed previously, the learner must choose what pieces of information to take into the working memory, and then the learner has to actively engage with that material in order to learn it. Mayer describes the processing as creating a mental representation or a model of the information. As we work to apply this assumption to multimedia instruction, Mayer tells us that we need to encourage the student’s active processing. To make learning effective, our presentation material should have an understandable structure, and it should guide the learner in making a mental model.

If we are trying to help students build mental models, it’s helpful to know how information models can be structured. Mayer describes five model structures that each contain specific types of information and have an associated visual representation.

The first structure that Mayer describes is a process structure. This structure holds an explanation for how a system works and can be represented as a cause-and-effect chain. Mayer’s visual representation of the two channels for processing information is an example of a process structure.

The second structure he describes is a comparison structure. This structure compares multiple points between two or more items and is often represented as a matrix. A third structure is a generalization structure. This structure organizes a main idea and the subordinate supporting details, which can be represented as a branching tree.

The next type of structure is an enumeration structure. This is a collection of items and can usually be represented as a list because the items in the collection are equal. Finally, the last structure is classification. Classification includes sets and subsets and can be represented as hierarchies.

These model types help show what an effective and useful visual representation might look like. As Mayer explains, not all visuals and multimedia presentations are equal in their instructional quality. In his article, he includes a process structure to help explain how the visual information and auditory information are processed in separate channels in the brain. The visual representation helps to make sense of the words that he provides to explain the brain’s processing.

In addition to providing a visual for his own theory, Mayer explains and shows the multimedia presentation he used in conducting his study. This presentation explains how lightning is formed. Along with a narration, a very simple visual animation shows horizontal squiggly lines for cool air, then vertical squiggly lines for warmed air that rises, and vertical squiggly lines pointing into a cloud to show the formation of a cloud. These two simple examples show us Mayer’s basic principles for multimedia learning in action.

Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning tells us that the words and pictures that we choose for instruction are important and impactful. Choosing a cartoon animation that doesn’t directly relate to the material can hinder a student’s learning rather than helping them.

Originally published on the McGraw-Hill Education Canada blog.

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