Instructional Design Principles for In-Person and Video-Based Learning

Photo of someone diagramming a user experience

by Kristen Mosley

Mediated learning is certainly not new, yet its prevalence has skyrocketed in recent years. Add to this is the uncertainty that the pandemic has introduced to traditional learning environments, and you may find yourself navigating instruction and course design that accommodates both in-person and virtual learning.

Research in mediated learning has been developing for many years1, and the next two posts highlight key design principles learned. This week’s post, though stemming from research conducted with video-based instruction, contains four instructional design principles applicable to both in-person and mediated learning:2

Dynamic Drawing Principle

This principle describes how students learn better when presented with “live” drawings of a concept versus previously created, static images.2 In a study of college students who either watched a lecture in which the instructor drew the diagram while teaching about it or watched a lecture in which the instructor pointed to a previously drawn diagram, students in the former condition (with the instructor who drew while lecturing) performed better on the tested material.3

Two theories are thought to underlie this principle, both of which emphasize the social nature of dynamic drawing. First, social agency theory posits that a social partnership between the student and instructor is fostered when the instructor draws while lecturing, which leads to deeper learning.4 Second, embodiment theory5 stresses how students able to see the instruction drawing the information can provide a sense of self-reference, which increases the saliency of the student’s learning experience.1

When recording a video lecture or lecturing in-person, consider how the presentation of “live” drawings, versus pre-drawn images on a slide can enhance the depth and saliency of the learning experience for students. Make use of your in-person and Zoom-based whiteboards!

Gaze Guidance Principle

This design principle highlights the importance of an instructor’s gaze as a cue for key information. Research suggests that students learn better when their instructor shifts their gaze between the audience and the material at hand. For example, shifting eye contact while lecturing between the students and the key foci of the material being displayed.6

Unlike the dynamic drawing principle, which is readily applicable to both in-person and virtual learning, there are caveats to consider when implementing this design principle in virtual learning. For in-person learning, it’s fairly simple. This design principle highlights how the instructor’s interaction with, as opposed to mere presentation of, visual material is critical to helping students construct meaning. To facilitate students’ attention appropriately, physically interact with important information that is projected/drawn on the board.

For virtual learning, this design principle can be a bit trickier to implement. Most studies supporting this principle are conducted with transparent whiteboards, where the instructor’s gaze between the students and the information written on screen is facilitated through advanced technology. Because this technology is not readily available, consider how using tools like the mouse pointer and Zoom’s annotate feature can help you to cue relevance. Whether simply using your mouse to signal important material or annotating slides while presenting via Zoom’s annotate tool, there are ways to strengthen student learning despite the limitations on gaze shifting in a virtual environment.

Generate Activity Principle

This design principle emphasizes the importance of learner involvement during learning. Research suggests that students who engage in generative activities during learning, such as summarizing, explaining, or imitating the instructor’s demonstration, perform better on subsequent tests. Incorporating this design principle has also been found to provide particularly strong effects on students who have minimal prior knowledge and experience with the topic.2

Generative learning theory underpins this design principle. According to this theory, when students are tasked with summarizing, explaining, or imitating the learning (e.g., when learning a physical task), it requires them to incorporate three cognitive processes that are critical for learning: selecting, organizing, and integrating. These processes help students focus on important material (selecting), develop mental frameworks for understanding the material (integrating), and incorporate relevant prior knowledge (integrating).7

To implement this design principle with both in-person and virtual learning, consider how the addition of generative prompts during a lecture can shift the cognitive load from instructor to student. For example, when switching topics during a class session, use the transition as an opportunity for students to engage in a generative activity, such as “Talk with others around you to come up with a discussion prompt related to [the topic just discussed]”. The key reminder with this design principle is that embedding active learning during instruction ensures students have access to this type of learning, without assuming they will all engage in such on their own.

Seductive Details Principle

The final design principle to consider focuses on findings demonstrating that students do not learn better when interesting yet irrelevant information is added (e.g., GIFs, memes, extra videos). These additional elements may seem to provide interest, yet prior research comparing the use of lessons with and without these interest-sparking, extraneous elements did not yield better learning.4

For example, one study examined groups of college students who were learning about the development of lightning storms. One group received videos of lightning storms interspersed in the lesson, while a different group received the instructional lesson without the additional clips. In a follow-up assessment, the students who engaged in the lesson with the additional, “seductive” details did not perform better than their counterparts who did not receive the extra videos.8

The theory behind why extraneous elements may cause more harm than good stems from the concept of extraneous cognitive processing. Extraneous cognitive processing includes any cognitive work that is not germane to the instructional objective. The use of seductive details (e.g., GIFs, memes, extra videos) within a lesson may therefore spur the need for extraneous cognitive processing thereby reducing the available cognitive capacity students have to focus on the learning at hand. The implications of this design principle are to remember to use caution when including extraneous material in lecture slides and videos. Consider how to incorporate active student engagement in the learning (see generate activity principle above!) may provide a better vehicle for facilitating meaningful learning as well as excitement or interest in the material.

We hope these principles will help you when designing your in-person and/or video-based lessons! Come back next week for design principles specific only to video-based lecturing.

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

2. Mayer, R.E., Fiorella, L. & Stull, A. (2020). Five ways to increase the effectiveness of instructional video. Education Tech Research Dev 68837–852.

3. Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). Effects of observing the instructor draw diagrams on learning from multimedia messages. Journal of Educational Psychology 108, 528–546.

4. Mayer, R. E. (2014). The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

5. Robbins, P., & Aydele, M. (2009). A short primer on situated cognition. In P. Robbins & M. Aydede (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition (pp. 3–10). New York: Cambridge University Press.

6. van Wermeskerken, M., & van Gog, T. (2017). Seeing the instructor’s face and gaze in demonstration video examples affects attention allocation but not learning. Comparative Education 113, 98–107.

7. Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2015). Learning as a generative activity: eight learning strategies that promote understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press

8. Mayer, R. E., Heiser, J., & Lonn, S. (2001). Cognitive constraints on multimedia learning: when presenting more material results in less understanding. Journal of Educational Psychology 93 , 187–198.

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