Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Critiquing Mayer's Multimedia Learning...

'Instructional development is too often based on what computers can do rather than on a research-based theory of how students learn with technology’

The quote above comes from Richard Mayer discussing Multimedia Learning: someone widely cited in eLearning publications, and whose work I have wanted to read in more depth for a long time. Having done so in recent weeks, I have had various thoughts about his Multimedia Learning and Generative Theory....

Some background info

Mayer advocates cognitive approaches to learning, and identifies Dual Channels for information processing in humans - a visual channel (to process images, animations, etc) and a verbal channel (to process written and spoken words, etc). The cognitive phases Select information for processing by the dual channels; Organise verbal and visual representations; and finally Integrates, or builds connections between verbal and pictorial models with prior knowledge.

His research supports this notion, suggesting targeting both channels can increase learning (defined as applying creative solutions to problem solving) by 50%. In developing multimedia resources for learners, Mayer suggests three critical principles for reducing cognitive load, assisting human's limited capacity for information processing, and to encourage effective learning and knowledge construction:

Spatial contiguity: learning is more effective when words and images are presented closer together
Temporal contiguity: learning is more effective when words and pictures are presented simultaneously
Modality contiguity: learning is more effective when verbal information is presented auditory with pictures, over text with pictures. However, if there are no images/animations, text with audio narration can still target the dual channels.

This is certainly interesting for anyone developing online/multimedia learning materials, and something I will personally consider more thoughtfully. However.....

Concern 1: Classroom teaching 

In 'The Promise of Multimedia Learning', Mayer alludes that multimedia learning is more effective than learning within a classroom, suggesting it is a 'single-medium' presentation; that is, relying solely on words - the verbal channel.

However, I can't help but feel this is a misguided representation on classroom learning - it doesn't account for the variety of innovative approaches that can be utilised within the classroom. Social, experiential, problem based, and technology-enhanced approaches can all make for effective learning experiences within the classroom. For example, in learning the workings of a bicycle pump, Mayer suggests descriptive images/animations supported with audio is most effective, but doesn't consider the potential learning experiences if students could actually use the pump in real life, and dismantle it to see the inner workings.

Whilst I advocate the multimedia approaches, I think it is important educators don't get carried away with suggestions like this, and do actually challenge pre-existing presumptions of student learning. For as great as it is, multimedia (and eLearning in general) is not a panacea or answer to solve every learner's problems!

Concern 2: Learning in isolation

Such Multimedia 'packages' suggest we learn in isolation i.e alone. Does Mayer recognise the importance and potential of social learning? Or does he refute it? Embedding such content within a VLE can offer a range of social possibilities through the use of discussion forums, chat and web conferencing, to share experience and help construct knowledge and meaning.

Concern 3: Subject matter

Mayer suggests;
‘Contiguous presentation of visual and verbal material may be most important when the material is a cause-and-effect explanation of a simple system, when the learners are inexperienced, and when the goal is meaningful learning’
So this therefore raises questions of transferability. Will following his principles for other situations, such as learning about 19th century literature, produce the same outputs? What if there are no cause-and-effect explanations to draw upon?

Concern 4: Freedom

In Clarke and Mayer (2011), the authors suggest;
"Because the metaphor of the Internet is high learner control, allowing learners to search, locate, and peruse thousands of Internet sites, a tempting pitfall is to create highly exploratory learning environments that give learners an unrestricted license to navigate and piece together their own unique learning experiences. One lesson we have learned from over fifty years of research on discovery learning is that it rarely works."

But this flies in the face of much of the current thinking around encouraging learners to search, find, review and select appropriate information. Michael Wesch is a popular figure advocating such skills, and a diverse bank of research into tools such as Second Life and digital literacies would equally encourage such discovery approaches.

Should we spoon-feed our students or provide a structure to enable them to solve problems and find certain things out for themselves? They won't be spoon fed in the world of work, so failing to prepare them here, is preparing them to fail in the real world!


I think the essence of Mayer's work stands true, and does have a place in education today. For example, I see the development of reusable learning objects as a clear area that could benefit from insight into Mayer's research, taking note of contiguity effects to reduce cognitive load. However ultimately, these objects might be repurposed and placed alongside other materials and activities to encourage a more holistic learning experience.

In relation to RLOs (and that will take it's own post completely at some point), Windle et. al (2011) suggests learners value self-assessment; self paced learning; and use for revision of 'difficult' areas - together then, we can obtain a clear picture or framework for developing reusable content.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the above, so please get in touch either in the comments, by email or on twitter.

Peter (@reedyreedles)


Mayer, R. E., & Gallini, J. K. (1990) When is an illustration worth ten thousand words? Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(4), 715-726. doi:10.1037//0022-0663.82.4.715

Mayer, R. E. (1997) Multimedia Learning : Are We Asking the Right Questions ? Educational Psychology, 32(1), 1-19.

Mayer, R. E. (2003) The promise of multimedia learning: using the same instructional design methods across different media. Learning and Instruction, 13(2), 125-139. doi:10.1016/S0959-4752(02)00016-6

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003) Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Psychology, 38(1), 43-52.

Windle, R. J., McCormick, D., Dandrea, J., & Wharrad, H. (2011). The characteristics of reusable learning objects that enhance learning: A case-study in health-science education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(5), 811-823. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01108.x

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This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Thanks for providing such a great article, it was excellent and very informative.
    as a first time visitor to your blog I am very impressed.
    thank you :)

  2. For a more detailed critique, see "Pedagogic Design Guidelines for Multimedia Materials: A Call for Collaboration between Practitioners and Researchers" Journal of Visual Literacy, 2013, Volume 32 Number 2, 85-114