Instructional Design for Multimedia Learning

Photo of a movie camera

by Kristen Mosley

Building on last week’s post, which presented four instructional design principles suitable for planning your in-person and online courses, this week’s post focuses on considerations for reducing cognitive distractions in video-based/online instruction (i.e., “multimedia learning”).

We discussed cognitive load theory in our first post on flipped learning, and we again see its relevance in today’s topic! For a refresher, cognitive load theory posits learners have cognitive capacity constraints that impede their ability to intake a lot of new information. Specifically, research suggests a learner can hold about 5-11 pieces of information at one time.1 Unfortunately, in the context of multimedia learning, there is a lot of room and many tendencies to include extra information (e.g., GIFs, videos, images). In the literature, this extra information is called “extraneous material” and includes any added elements unrelated to the educational goal. Research using cognitive load theory suggests that such extraneous material requires the use of valuable cognitive processing, which therefore limits a learner’s available cognition for relevant information.

Three key assumptions have been posited to underlie the limitations of a learner’s cognitive capacity in multimedia learning: dual channel, limited capacity, and active processing assumptions. First, the dual channel assumption explains how humans process information via two channels—verbal channels process auditory information and visual channels process visual information. Second, the limited capacity assumption builds on the dual channel assumption to further explain how each of these channels have limited information-processing capacity. Third, the active processing assumption explains how a learner engaged in active processing of new information requires quite a bit of cognitive capacity in both the verbal and visual channels. Thus, taking these three assumptions together, a critical tenet of designing for multimedia learning is to keep the limited capacities of the auditory and visual channels top of mind so that your multimedia instruction is maximizing learning while minimizing cognitive overload.2 Here are a few suggestions for how to apply this to your multimedia lessons:

Pretraining: Sometimes the rigor of a given semester’s schedule necessitates a lesson be filled with a lot of complex information. When/if this occurs in your courses, consider how pretraining – presenting part of the to-be-learned material prior to the lesson – can help lower the cognitive processing required of complex topics. For example, at the end of the lesson on the prior instructional day, present a 5-minute preview of the material to be covered in the next lesson. This preview could present explanations of key vocabulary and important concepts of the next lesson. Research suggests that students who receive a preview of the learning prior to the application or in-depth thinking about the new material outperform their counterparts who are presented with all the material at the same time.3

Segmenting: Consider how the presentation of a video/lecture can be strategically segmented – as opposed to presented continuously – to provide think time between key components. For example, when playing a video during a lecture, consider stopping at the conclusion of each main point of the video and asking a probing question or allowing time for student reflection. Additionally, if pre-recording a lecture via Panopto, consider including quiz or response breaks within the lecture to prompt students to reflect on the material before moving to the subsequence section. An experimental study of students who received new material with and without segmenting demonstrated that the students who received the segmented video performed better on transfer tests.4

Signaling: Helping learners see or hear the most important components of the to-be-learned material can greatly reduce their cognitive load. For example, using vocal intonation to stress key vocabulary, adding visual cues throughout a video/lecture that help students organize the different parts of the lesson, and interacting with videos and images to facilitate focus, all help students appropriately direct and use their cognitive capacities. An experimental study in which signaling was and was not used within a video presentation demonstrated that students whose instructors used signaling to help them ascertain important information performed better on a follow-up test than those whose instructors did not.5 

Subtitling: This last consideration is the most complex, as there are many nuances to the research on this topic and its application in increasingly neurodiverse classroom settings. First, research has previously demonstrated that printed subtitles are impactful for students learning new information in their second language. Specifically, the use of printed subtitles or printed and spoken subtitles is more beneficial than spoken text alone for learners who are being taught in a second language. However, research has demonstrated the opposite effect for native speakers. Native speakers have been shown to learn better when presented with spoken information without printed subtitles, as the omission of subtitles reduces redundant, distracting information.6 Thus, when considering the differences in student needs based on first language alone, we see divergent suggestions about the use of subtitles. Even more, both suggestions omit the many other qualities and needs students bring to a given learning environment. For example, students with auditory-related accommodations may require subtitles, rendering either of the prior points moot. In short, and as in all instructional innovation, it is critical to consider context when contemplating if, how, and when such instructional design considerations can be implemented.

Curious about these and other considerations for multimedia learning? Reach out to us! ( We’d love to help you in your instructional design for the many types of learning you help to facilitate with our COE students every day.

1.  Sweller, J. (2020). Cognitive load theory and educational technology. Educational Technology Research and Development68(1), 1-16.

2. Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist38(1), 43-52.

3. Pollock, E., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2002). Assimilating complex information. Learning and instruction12(1), 61-86.

4. Mayer, R. E., & Chandler, P. (2001). When learning is just a click away: Does simple user interaction foster deeper understanding of multimedia messages? Journal of Educational Psychology93(2), 390.

5. Mautone, P. D., & Mayer, R. E. (2001). Signaling as a cognitive guide in multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology93(2), 377.

6. Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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