The way the brain processes information helps instructors understand how to use multimedia learning more effectively. Dual channels, limited capacity, and active processing are three assumptions Richard E. Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of California, based his cognitive theory of multimedia learning on.
Mayer has authored over 500 publications, including 30 books. In the Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, a chapter is dedicated to the fundamental hypothesis underlying the research on Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning. His research and concern are how to present information to optimize learning the information. What are the assumptions, principles, and educational value of the theory?
Three Assumptions Underlying Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
Dual Channels Assumption
Auditory and visual are two separate channels a learner processes information through. The visual or pictorial channel, processes what a person sees, and the auditory or verbal channel what they hear.
Limited Capacity Assumption
A learner can only process a certain amount of information at a moment, referred to as the limited capacity assumption. Each of the two channels processes relevant information separately. Due to the limitation, learners choose which pieces of information they pay attention to and will transform into the working memory.
Active Processing Assumption
Active processing is how a person learns the new information; how the student actively engages with it. They pay attention to the incoming data or information and select what they deem as the relevant information. The selected information is then organized in understandable mental, visual, and verbal models. These representation models have then integrated it with prior knowledge.
Instructors can guide learners in creating the mental model by using the correct presentation material.
Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning
The twelve principles of multimedia instruction may assist instructors in reducing the cognitive demand of the learner.
Minimizing Unnecessary Cognitive Effort
When instructors remove irrelevant learning and unnecessary simulation material that does not support the learning outcome, they help learners focus and process critical information. Learners are less distracted by excess data.
According to Mayer, people learn better when unnecessary material is removed. If the content is interesting but irrelevant, instructors should not include it in the lesson. Teachers should only use text, narration, and graphics that support the learning goals.
The signaling principle means learners learn better when they can follow the learning path. Teachers may use arrows, highlights, and other signaling cues to draw the students’ attention to the critical information they must learn.
Instructors may also show an organizational structure to guide students to indicate where they are in the lesson and when they move to a new section.
Students could be overloaded if presented with too many multimedia combinations. Words spoken verbally with supporting graphics are deemed more effective than adding the words as text to the graphics.
Spatial Contiguity Principle
The spatial contiguity principle focuses on helping students use cognitive effort more productively. By placing captions or labels close to graphics or by responding with and answer soon after the question was asked, students learn better because it helps them to make the connections quicker.
Temporal Contiguity Principle
When words and images are presented simultaneously, students learn faster than when the narration follows the animation or vice versa.
Simplifying Learning Materials
Essential processing is the cognitive effort needed for representing data in the working memory—the complexity or simplicity of the material influences the intrinsic load.
The segmenting principle addresses two aspects. Learners learn better if they control the pace of the multimedia lesson. A simple tool like allowing the learner to press the next slide button, gives the student pace control.
When teachers present the material that describes a process in smaller pieces, students learn better because they have time to process each screen before moving on to the next screen.
Students focus better on the content if they are familiar with the terms used. Educators may assist students by defining key concepts before teaching an intricate process,
Another way an instructor may help students is to make sure they know how to use the equipment or tools necessary for the lesson or activity.
Spoken words combined with a visual is more effective than on-screen text and a visual. To avoid overloading students, the teacher should use the combination of spoken words with text sparingly.
If verbal communication is used, the text should only be used for directions, lists, references, or students where English is their second or third language.
Optimizing Generative Processing
Motivation affects the amount of effort needed to learn the material. The way the content is presented to a student may motivate or demotivate them in learning the specific information.
Students learn better when instructors use multimedia consisting of words and images than only verbal presentations. Words should either be spoken or printed, but preferably not both.
Teachers should use images that enhance and clarify the material and omit redundant images that distracts.
Everyday language is easier understood and less confusing than technical or academic language. Being professional does not require formal speech and complicated expressions that make it difficult to understand what is said.
A teaching presented in everyday, polite language gives the impression of a one-to-one conversation that students may respond more readily to than a formal lecture.
Although research is still beginning, Mayer believes that human speech is better for narration than a computer mimicking a voice.
Research on the image principle is also not conclusive yet. It may seem that learning outcomes do not improve with multimedia presentations using the instructors talking image.
Criticism of Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
Although Mayer’s theory may guide teachers to assist their students in learning better, the argument is also critiqued.
The theory does not take into consideration how stress and motivation affect a student’s learning effectiveness. Neither does it address the influence of background music and other non-narrative audio.
The learning principles conditions apply to learners with little or no knowledge of the material. The application of the principles focuses on multimedia messages that describe processes. Lastly, the principles are, to a degree, medium agnostic.