Online Learning

Digital Spaces: 12 Best Practices for Multimedia Learning

Design online course content by following best practices to reduce students' cognitive load and prevent the words, pictures, and media from over-stimulating and inhibiting learning.
October 21, 2015
Two young boys are sitting next to each other in class with laptops in front of them.
Photo credit: marco antonio torres via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Google searches for "classroom design" or "science of classroom design" yield helpful results on how to set up your classroom for student success. Yet, with the increasing use of educational technology, student learning isn't limited to the physical classroom. According to a 2012 study by Evergreen Education Group, roughly 275,000 students are enrolled full-time in online education.

The growing popularity of online education may be due, in large part, to innovations in multimedia learning and instruction, defined as "presenting words and pictures that are intended to foster learning" (Mayer and Moreno, 2003). Richard Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, identifies the essential pieces of multimedia learning in his 2001 study, 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning (PDF), which we'll consider below.

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According to Mayer and Moreno (2003), these principles are best practices to reduce students' cognitive load -- when their processing demands exceed their processing capabilities. In other words, these strategies can be employed when the use of words, pictures, and media in an online course are over stimulating and inhibit learning.

Using Mayer's 12 Principles in the Classroom

Whether you teach kindergarten or work in higher education, whether in a physical classroom or on an online platform, it's important to keep in mind Mayer's 12 principles when working in digital learning environments with your students.

Here are ways to use these principles in your classroom:

1. Coherence Principle

Students learn best when extraneous words, pictures, and media are eliminated. When creating online courses or presentations, be sure to limit your screen to only essential information.

2. Signaling Principle

Keep students on task by highlighting essential information. Add visual cues such as bolding important words or circling important images in an example.

3. Redundancy Principle

This principle refers to having side-by-side closed captioning and voice narration of a text. Mayer's best practices note that there should be either text or voice narration to prevent students' cognitive overload. However, when working with students who have special needs (such as dyslexia or sensory processing disorders), it may be useful to supply both text and voice narration.

4. Spatial Contiguity Principle

Mayer notes that students learn best when corresponding words and images are displayed near each other on the screen. This allows students to direct their attention to one central focal point.

5. Temporal Contiguity Principle

This principle is directly related to the spatial contiguity principle, but notes that when displaying corresponding text and images, they should be presented at the same time rather than successively.

6. Segmenting Principle

Students learn best at their own pace. This principle focuses on the idea that multimedia lessons should be presented in user-paced sections rather than one continuous lesson. Khan Academy and BrainPop do an excellent job at this principle, creating multimedia content that allows students (and teachers) to move through the lesson at their own pace.

7. Pre-Training Principle

Pre-training is important in both in-class and online lessons, providing students with either a quick refresher of previously-learned content or equipping them with the core terms of an upcoming lesson. Teachers may be more familiar with this term when referred to as instructional scaffolding.

8. Modality Principle

As previously mentioned, in order to limit cognitive overload, students learn better when presented with graphics and narration vs. animation and on-screen text. Pairing animation with on-screen text may visually over stimulate your students and inhibit their retention. Again, BrainPop's curriculum does a great job at organizing their multimedia in a way that limits visual stimulation for students.

9. Multimedia Principle

This is an overarching principle and focus for multimedia learning in general, emphasizing that students learn better when presented with both words and pictures simultaneously. Presenting students with visual and text-based representations of the content allows you to reach all learning styles.

10. Personalization Principle

As with all lessons, information should be presented to students in conversational, age-appropriate tone and language. Programs like the Hemingway app are a great tool for making sure that your writing is comprehensible to your students. Copy-and-pasting your text into this tool provides you with its reading level as well as constructive feedback to make your text bold and clear.

11. Voice Principle

Mayer's voice principle also relates to your narration's tone and emphasizes the importance of your narrator being a human voice rather than an automated robot. Record your own voice whenever possible, or look into natural-sounding text-to-talk automators such as Natural Readers.

12. Image Principle

While your students will learn more comfortably with a human voice, this does not mean that you should include your own or someone else's face on screen while narrating. This does not apply to online courses that have synchronous instruction with the professor.

The Science of Classroom Design, an infographic created through USC Rossier's online teaching degree program, digs deeper into how digital classrooms -- and the physical classroom environment -- impact student learning, behavior, and achievement.

How have you taken steps to set up your classroom success? Share your stories in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #InclusiveSpaces.