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Nuts and Bolts: Principles of Multimedia Learning

by Jane Bozarth

May 4, 2010


by Jane Bozarth

May 4, 2010

Designers can be distracted by “what looks good.” Clients can be distracted by what they think is good, or by what someone has said is “cool” or “innovative.” In either case, the result is likely to hurt learning. Boost the credibility and effectiveness of your e-Learning products with the principles presented here.

Cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer has made it his life’s work to understand how technology – such as multimedia—can support and enhance learning. His ongoing experimentation has uncovered a number of principles useful to those developing asynchronous and synchronous online instruction. The findings are useful as well to those creating participant guides and job aids, and to those involved in technical writing tasks.

Here is an overview of just three of the principles of multimedia learning, with more to come in a future column.


Contiguity Principle: Present corresponding words and pictures contiguously; place text near, or insert into, images.

Consider Figure 1. The learner simply has to work too hard to match items in the image on the right with the legend at left. The layout is neat, and the image is “pretty,” but understanding requires enormous work for the learner who will have to struggle mightily to hold separate items in his or her working memory. Consider: the learner’s eyes must jump from one side of the screen to the other, all the while trying to decipher the meaning of “terracette.”


image with landscape and list of descriptions of the landscape

Figure 1: This figure violates the contiguity principle by separating text and image, creating more work for the learner.


Solution: Whenever possible, integrate text within the image, or at least put it as close as possible. Figure 2 does this and is much clearer.


this time no list, and tagging is done directly on the image for better contiguity

Figure 2: By integrating the text within (or close to) the image, this example makes it easier for learners to understand the explanation.


Note: This Contiguity Principle applies to print materials as well as to screens in online instruction. Don’t forget this when using images in participant guides, workbooks, or job aids.

Multiple representation principle

Multiple Representation Principle: Presenting words and pictures is more effective than presenting words alone.

Words + (meaningful) pictures together are better than words alone. You’d think this one would be evident by now, but I see instance after instance in which the sheer volume of text manages to completely obscure the meaning. Compare Figure 3 to Figure 4.


written statement with no structure, simply bulleted

Figure 3: Presenting words alone does not help the learner understand what they must do.


text is now in form of a letter, which gives form and structure to the letter

Figure 4: By embedding the text in the image of an actual letter, the designer helps the learner understand what is to be done.



Figure 4 is also all text, but the text is offered as an image of an actual letter – the document at issue – with important information highlighted by callouts. Note, too, that Figure 4 mimics real-world performance. The manager does not need to memorize the elements of a warning letter in order to rattle them off on demand, but should include them in a letter that will look much like this one. Since the performance is not memory-dependent, this is also (or instead) a useful printable takeaway and future-reference tool.

Split attention principle

Split Attention Principle: When offering auditory information, do not replicate it with onscreen text. In other words: Do. Not. Read. Screens. Aloud.

Instructional designers tell me they fight this battle all the time, with clients who insist on word-for-word narration even though it will hurt the learning. Basically, we read and hear at different speeds, so managing both onscreen text and matching narration just overloads the learner by splitting his or her attention.

Voiceover on Figure 3? Never.

A voiceover explanation of Figure 4? Better – as long as you’re not just reading the warning letter verbatim.

  • Note: “I like narration with the text” is not a reason.
  • Note: “Adding text to the narration supports auditory and visual learning styles.” No, it confuses everyone, and bores me, and besides, there is no evidence to support the notion that catering to “learning styles” does anything to support learning anyway.
  • Note: Text written with PowerPoint Word Art tools is still text. Text zooming and flying and fading is still text, made worse by the animations.

The most obvious solution here? Why, get rid of the text. And if taking away the text leaves nothing, well, then that’s a Word document. E-mail it to everyone, or load it to Google Docs and tell them how to get to it.

In working to develop effective instruction, those with an eye for design are sometimes distracted by what is pleasing. Clients can be distracted by what they think is good, or what they’ve seen elsewhere (never mind that it actually harmed learning), or what they heard at a trade show, or what they perceive as “cool.” (For fun, check out anecdotes on the “Clients From Hell” Website: .) Brush up on your Mayer to help support your credibility as a professional using research-rooted, evidence-based, data-driven practice.

For more details on these and additional research-based principles of multimedia learning, see Mayer and Mayer & Moreno, as well as work from Ruth Clark and John Sweller in the Resources list.


Clark, R. & Mayer, R. (2009) E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Clark, R., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006) Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer

Mayer, R. & Moreno, R. (1998). "A Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning: Implications for Design Principles."

Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. (1999). "Cognitive principles of multimedia learning: The role of modality and contiguity." Journal of Educational Psychology 91: 358–368. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.91.2.358

Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
ISBN 0-52178-749-1

Sweller, J. & Chandler, P. (1994). Why some material is difficult to learn. Cognition and Instruction 12: 185-233.

Figures 1 and 2 from

Bozarth, J. (2008). Better than Bullet Points: Creating Engaging e-Learning with PowerPoint. San Francisco: Pfeiffer. Original “river studies” images by Debbie Milton.

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Great article! Note that you may get into a fight with the translation department over the Contiguity Department - To translators they prefer the method in Figure 1 because it is means the same image can be used for each language.
What I meant to say is that when you have materials in multiple languages it may warrant violating the Contiguity Principle.
Thanks @wfindlay. Sorry, but I put this in the same category as making things "nice". Product should be for the learner's benefit, not the convenience of the translator. Better to have the image repeated in several languages than to violate the principle. JB
In regards to the Multiple Representation Principle... this reminds me of the Abstraction/Realism scale used within visual design disciplines. Text is very abstract when compared to the 'real thing'. Real thing being the job or product on which you develop training.

Images (graphics, pictures, signs and symbols) are also abstract when compared to the real thing. But images offer a more realistic experience when compared to text. When used together to communicate a message/learning, text + image works well!

And as we incorporate animations, simulations and instructional video... we move closer to the realistic side of the Abstraction/Realism scale.

But at the end of the day, nothing is more realistic than doing the on-the-job training or working with the actual product.
Brief, straightforward, and to the point. I liked it. A very common sense approach to helping to keep learning focused that I had never really thought about before.
Please interject Section 508 requirements into content. As stated advice is misleading. wpm
Thank you for your clarity!
Note from the Editor: The topic of Jane's column is, as the title says, principles of multimedia learning. Readers looking for information about methods for satisfying Section 508 requirements are invited to enter "508" in the Search box at the top of the page. This will bring up the articles published here in the past on Section 508.

If anyone would like to offer a proposal for an article dealing with Section 508, please see the Author Guidelines; the link to these is under the "Authors" topic on the menu at the top of the page.
Our ID team is having a lively discussion about the "Split Attention" principle. We use audio narration with concise synched text bullets in some situations. Some think the text reinforces the narration. I think any text with audio is distracting. I usually wait until the audio is finished and then read. If we don't use text bullets with audio, what do we show? We're talking compliance and ethics training here.
Hi mcandrew. Google around, or check the sources listed, for specifics regardin 508 compliance; it can be done. Also, anyone: I'm interested in learning about 508 compliance for podcasting and synchronous classroom training but am not finding much.
cnpoole: "Some think the text reinforces the narration.". I can't say much to that except to repeat that Mayer's research says no. Careful of blaming the content: Some companies do a great job with compliance/ethics. Check out work from Michael Allen, William Horton, and Ruth Clark; Tom Kuhlmann's and Cathy Moore's blogs. Other readers may know of good examples to share.
I wonder about the help of narration for those who reading skills are not up to snuff?
Regarding on-screen text and audio narration: Clark & Mayer, in their book eLearning & the Science of Instruction say that on-screen text and narration are okay when there are NO graphics on the screen (eg. a bullet pointed list with audio narration that expands on the bullet points). Chapter 6 - Redundancy Principle.
Great article. I can understand how narrating text verbatim might overload the learner however, I typically narrate what is on the screen and may expand on some things that are on the screen both to satisfy 508 requirements and to provide two avenues for learners to obtain the information presented. They have the option of muting the narration and viewing the notes or closing their eyes and listening to the course (depending on the content of course). This is a challenging dilemma for many designers that warrants further discussion IMHO.
Very good article. I hope to use some of these examples with our "read the screen" presenters when I explain why their method isn't working very well.
Hi Jane, thank you for your article. I know this was published a while ago and I wonder if anyone is still tracking the comments, but I have a question of similar nature and I wanted to see what other IDs thought about it…What about playing background music? Does music impact the learner’s cognitive process?
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