How do you get your audience to remember and engage with your digital learning content? Every learning designer faces this challenge.
While there are many creative, experimental approaches in one's toolkit, Richard Mayer's 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning is a simple framework that serves as a helpful guide.
No matter what you are creating - training videos, eLearning courses, PowerPoint presentations - Mayer's principles can help make your content more engaging and effective.
Multimedia learning is a form of digital instruction that uses two modalities at the same time. Modalities are visual elements (like images, animations, text, and videos) and audio (music, voiceover). You experience multimedia learning any time you watch a YouTube video or take a Coursera course; both visual and audio happening at the same time.
Researcher Richard Mayer wrote a book called Multimedia Learning where he explains his research on how best to structure content to maximize learner comprehension. Here is a brief overview of the key principles from his book:
First up is the Coherence Principle, which states that humans learn best when extraneous, distracting material is not included.
Simply said, cut out the extras. Use only the information that the learner needs. And most often, that means simple text and simple visuals that relate directly to the learning topic. Remove all the fluff.
You can use the Coherence Principle as you’re planning your visual elements. Ask yourself, “Is this image 100% necessary to help with comprehension? Could I find a better image? Does this message use simple enough language so the audience will understand?"
The Coherence Principle is also helpful when you’re editing a video. As you re-watch your edit, watch with a critical “Coherence Principle” eye. Be actively thinking how you can reduce, simplify, and clarify.
Next up is the Signaling Principle, which means humans learn best when they are shown exactly what to pay attention to on screen. If the screen is filled with unnecessary information, how is the learner supposed to know the most important part?
Use the signaling principle by thoughtfully highlighting important words. Use animated arrows and annotations to call out important information.
Another way you can use the signaling principle is by having slides or scenes that clearly separate sections. This is a quick and easy way to signal to the learner that you’re moving on to the next topic.
Next up? The Redundancy Principle. This principle suggests humans learn best with just narration and graphics, as opposed to narration, graphics, and text. The theory here is that if you already have narration and graphics, then the text on top is just redundant information. And this can be overwhelming for a learner.
You can use this principle for videos or eLearning courses that have narrated audio. Create your videos with graphics or text, but not both together. If you do include both, make sure your text is minimal.
Personally, I enjoy reading text on screen. It helps me learn and reinforce the audio. So I suggest, whenever possible, to include optional closed captioning the learner can turn on or off.
The Spatial Contiguity Principle is about the actual space between your text and visuals on the screen. It states that humans learn best when relevant text and visuals are physically close together.
If you're creating a video, keep all related text and graphics physically close together in your frame. This makes it easier for learners to process the information, using less energy to determine meaning. Make it easy for your audience to know where to look for information.
The Temporal Contiguity Principle states that humans learn best when corresponding words and visuals are presented together, instead of in consecutive order.
If you’re introducing a new process, the animation (or visual) should be occurring at the same time as the voiceover audio. This is preferred to having the voiceover audio play first, then watching a visual after. You can use this by making sure your voiceover audio is always timed well with your visuals or animations.
The Segmenting Principle states that humans learn best when information is presented in segments, rather than one long continuous stream. Mayer found that when learners can control the pace of their learning, they performed better on recall tests.
You can use this principle by providing learners with more control over their learning. Add next buttons. Allow video speed control up to 2x. Provide closed captioning on/off.
This principle also suggests that learning is broken up into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Keep it short and to-the-point. Make sure that no one lesson, slide, or video has too much information packed in it.
The Pre-Training Principle states that humans learn more efficiently if they already know the basics. If learners are prepared by knowing simple definitions, terms, or concepts, it helps with memory retention and engagement.
This makes sense. If you want to learn something new, the basics are the most important part. You need to know the basics before you learn anything else.
Create an introductory “guide” or “cheat sheet” for learners to use before they take your course. Or create an entire "pre-training" lesson dedicated to understanding the basics, before the learner moves into the actual course.
The Modality Principle states that humans learn best from visuals and spoken words, opposed to visuals and printed words. This means you should use text on screen sparingly, and only if there are visuals to accompany it. If there is too much text, learners will be overwhelmed.
Use less text on the screen. Use more visuals. If you need to, use text minimally to define key terms, list steps, or provide directions.
The Multimedia Principle states that humans learn best from words and visuals together, opposed to just words alone. This principle is the main idea behind Mayer's principles. Images and words work better together than either one on its own.
Think about the images you choose carefully. Each visual should help your audience understand the information better.
The Personalization Principle states that humans learn better from a casual voice than a formal voice. A genuine human tone makes the experience more natural and therefore, easier to learn from.
Keep your language simple and easy to understand. Avoid using jargon or overly professional text, and try to use the first person (you, I, we, our). You can also match the tone of your voiceover to enhance personalization.
The Voice Principle states that humans learn better from a human voice than a computer voice. Similar to the prior principle, people learn best when the tone is human-like.
Use a human for audio narration and voiceovers. Record your own or hire a professional. To ensure that your audio sounds high quality, use a professional microphone and master the audio in editing software.
AI-generated voiceover has come a long way. Companies like WellSaid Labs convert text to voice in real time. You can create human-sounding voiceovers in just a few clicks. Their software is pretty impressive! I highly recommend you check them out.
The Image Principle suggests that humans may not learn better from videos with instructors on screen (also called 'talking head' videos). This type of video is very common in eLearning courses and MOOCs. Note that the research on this topic is still in its early stages, so it's best to take this suggestion with a grain of salt.
The argument for this principle is that if there is important information to be learned, it will be more effective if you show relevant visuals on the screen instead of a talking head. It's a more productive use of visual real estate.
I believe talking heads do provide some value for the learner by building credibility and trust with the instructor. Once established, you can limit your talking head video as the course dives deeper into the content. Animations and visuals are helpful tools to reinforce the audio voiceover.
And there you have it, Mayer's 12 Principles of Multimedia. Try out these simple principles and see if it helps you create learning content your audience remembers and engages with.
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Happy creating! 🎨