Designing Online Learning Spaces (3): A picture is worth a thousand words? A Summary of Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning

Imagine you want to learn a new skill. This skill can be as pedestrian as how to correctly poach eggs or as complex as how to play a Bach oboe concerto. If you are anything like one-third of all internet users, the first place you might go to get oriented is YouTube. In 2019, YouTube reported that nearly 1.9 billion people access the site regularly, and how-tos/tutorials are one of the top categories where those people land. Though the magnitude of these numbers might be surprising, the theory behind them is remarkably logical when unpacked through Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning.

This post is the final in a series of practical insights into how to better conceptualize the design of online learning spaces. The first two posts accomplished this by looking to the field of user experience design. This third post will focus on multimedia learning to consider the content in addition to the context of online learning spaces.

What is Multimedia Learning?

At its most basic, Multimedia Learning is learning that involves both words and pictures. Though few would argue with this principle (or the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words), all multimedia is not equal. The brain can only process a finite amount of information. If you do not mindfully enact multimedia learning, you risk overwhelming your viewer and negating the learning process.

To address this potential cognitive overload, Dr. Richard Mayer, an educational psychologist, developed the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. Mayer’s theory explains both how multimedia learning works and how we can use it to encourage overall learning. His book, Multimedia Learning, fully fleshes out his philosophy and has become a seminal resource in learning design.

In this post, I will summarize Mayer’s Twelve Principles for Multimedia Learning and provide practical suggested application.

Mayer’s Twelve Principles for Multimedia Learning

Coherence Principle

Summary: Extraneous words, pictures, or sounds hinder learning.

Practical Application: Avoid using long phrases or sentences in on-screen text and only use images that complement or expand upon learning concepts.

Signaling Principle 

Summary: Organizational cues to promote content navigation and encourage learning.

Practical Application: Use headings, pull quotes, graphics, and paragraph indicators to segment text and provide easy entry points into content.

Redundancy Principle

Summary: Seeing identical content in written form and simultaneously hearing the content audibly can lead to cognitive confusion.

Practical Application: When using narration, remove an identical onscreen text and instead pair narration with graphic or image-based content. This simplification allows learners to focus only on listening rather than try to listen and read at the same time.

Spatial Continuity Principle

Summary: Proximity implies relationship.

Practical Application: Place related elements near one another on-screen so that it becomes visually evident they are connected.

Temporal Continuity Principle

Summary: It is easier to identify labeled content if the labels directly connect to accompanying zones.

Practical Application: Place words and images together into a unified composition for optimal comprehension rather than images followed by words or vice versa.

Segmenting Principle

Summary: Presenting content in smaller segmented chunks of information allows learners to absorb better information presented.

Practical Application: Pace instructional content into “user-paced” segments or content chunks rather than in one continuous recording or one endlessly scrolling page.

Pre-training Principle

Summary: Providing learners with information about the key concepts at the beginning allows them to orient themselves during the learning process better.

Practical Application: Provide an overview of the main concepts at the beginning of a learning session, allowing them to create a mental learning construct.

Modality Principle

Summary: Learners understand information more effectively when they hear it rather than when they have to read it.

Practical Application: Graphics and narration are more effective than on-screen text.

Multimedia Principle

Summary: Words and pictures are more effective than words alone.

Practical Application: Use image-based explanations whenever possible to make information more memorable.

Personalization Principle

Summary: Text presented in a conversational style is more effective than text shown in a formal style.

Practical Application: Intentionally consider user experience and language to best present text-based content in readable voice.

Voice Principle

Summary: Content presented in a friendly human voice is more approachable than content presented in a machine voice.

Practical Application: Whenever possible, use a human voice to narrate text.

Image Principle

Summary: Speaker’s image on the screen can be distracting to the learning process.

Practical Application: When recording video, limit personal presence via webcam or other recording device.


In conclusion, multimedia learning is learning that involves both words and pictures. The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning consists of twelve principles to help guide the creation of multimedia learning materials. These principles are easy to follow and provide an excellent framework for content creation.

My challenge to you? Choose one or two principles you might intentionally try out next when designing a learning space. Or do you have a principle or activity that has worked exceptionally well for you when working in a multimedia manner? Please share your insight in the comments below!


The 16 Most Popular Types Of YouTube Videos [Infographic]. (2019, August 7). Retrieved from

Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.



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