Documentation:Design Principles for Multimedia

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“It's not the specific media that creates learning, it's the educational design that creates learning.”

Richard Mayer, Professor of Psychology – University of California – Santa Barbara.


While it is true that anyone with a smartphone can make a video, making a video or screencast for learning requires thoughtful planning and an understanding of how learning is supported using multimedia resources.

In the table below, we have attempted to capture some of the practical and evidence based design principles that can serve as a guide in developing your learning resources.

The practical design goals are fairly standard and widely accepted and have been nicely articulated in a pedagogical framework for screencasting shared by Robert Talbert – Associate Professor in Mathematics at Grand Valley State University in the U.S. He produces a series of screencasts on Mathematics. His practical design goals include:

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  • Keep it Simple: Focus on one idea at a time.
  • Keep it Short: Keep videos to a length 5-6 minutes max. to maximize attention.
  • Keep it Real: Model the decision making and problem solving processes of expert learners.
  • Keep it Good: Be intentional about planning the video. Strive to produce the best video and audio quality possible.

Robert Talbert, Grand Valley State University - Video - Making Screencasts: the Pedagogical Framework

The research informed principles are largely based on the work of Dr. Richard Mayer, cognitive psychologist and well known researcher in the area of multimedia and learning. He has conducted nearly 100 studies in the development of his principles for multimedia design. Principles are based on evidence from this research. We've also added recent research from Derek Muller, physicist and filmmaker for the popular science learning YouTube Channel Veritasium. He has conducted his own studies into the use of video for physics learning and explores some provocative ideas about the role of misconception in learning.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive theories of multimedia learning (CTML) have been advanced by the work of Mayer and other cognitive researchers who propose that multimedia supports the way that our brains function in learning. Multimedia design for learning draws on cognitive research as a basis for decision making in the development of learning resources that combine words, images, and animations. However, this is only one body of evidence and questions are emerging from practice for further research.

De Jong (2010) highlights three main recommendations that cognitive load theory has contributed to the field of instructional design:

  • present material that aligns with the prior knowledge of the learner (intrinsic load)
  • avoid non-essential and confusing information (extraneous load),
  • stimulate processes that lead to conceptually rich and deep knowledge (germane load)

"These cognitive load processes occur simultaneously in working memory, are limited in capacity, and can only occur at the expense of the other two. If true, this creates important considerations for multimedia learning."(Sorden, 2012).


Design Goal Cognitive Load Strategy Principle Learning Effect Example Research Reference
Keep it Simple Reduce Extraneous Processing Coherence Principle People learn better when extraneous words, pictures and sounds are excluded. Resist the temptation to “spice up” your video with music, images or effects that are not directly relevant to the topic as this can divert learners’ attention and make learning more difficult. Mayer (2009).
Signaling Principle People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added. Using cues such as highlighting – pointers, drawing circles around relevant image parts all serve to help focus learners’ attention. Mayer (2009).
Redundancy Principle People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration, and printed text. If you have graphics and narration – adding words may stress cognitive load. Mayer (2009).
Contiguity Principle People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near to each other and simultaneously. Ensure that all images are relevant and any text labels or descriptors are located next to the part of the image they represent and on the same screen rather than a new window. Mayer (2009).
Keep it Short Manage Essential Processing Segmenting Principle People learn better from short, user paced sections than from continuous units. Break multimedia lessons into small chunks and provide opportunities for users to stop, reflect, address questions and resume when ready. Mayer (2009).
Pre-training Principle People learn better from multimedia when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts. Introduce key terms and definitions to learners before introducing the main theory or concept Clark & Mayer (2011).
Modality Principle People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics and text. Narration is preferable to written text when graphics or graphic animations are used. Mayer (2009).
Learner control principle People learn better when they can control the pace at which new information is presented. Incorporate opportunities to stop, start and replay animations, reflect on questions, assess understanding and resume when ready. Hasler, Kersten, & Sweller (2007).
Keep it Real Foster Generative Processing Personalization Principle People learn more deeply from conversational style than formal style. Use first and second person rather than third person when narrating. Mayer, Finnel, et al (2004) in Mayer (2009).
Voice Principle People learn more deeply from a human voice rather than a machine generated voice. Use your own voice whenever possible to create a connection with your learners. Mayer (2009).
Self-explanation Principle People learn better when they are encouraged to generate their own explanations during learning. Learners can produce learning resources for their peers on a theme or topic. Peer rating on the quality of explanation informs instructor. Wylie, R., & Chi, M. T. H. (2014)
Worked Example Principle People learn better when worked examples are given in initial skill training. Provide a worked example, partial example to be completed or problems with hints to scaffold learning. Renkl (2005)
Dialogue Dialogue incorporated in video with images or demonstrations results in better learning gains than without dialogue – especially in novice learners. Incorporate questions, possible answers, explanations from real people into the video. See Muller's Veritasium for examples. Muller (2013). He shares his research on this in his presentation to the Perimeter Institute in 2013 – see reference below.
Surfacing Misconceptions** Learning improves when misconceptions are addressed directly using dialogue and incorporating them into the lesson. Pre-tests may involve surfacing what learners know about a concept and exploring some of those pre-conceptions in the teaching of the topic. Muller (2013). He shares his research on this in his presentation to the Perimeter Institute in 2013 – see reference below.

Misconceptions** are difficult to shift because they often involve some element of truth. When students perceive an explanatory video as clear and helpful, they may not pay close attention. Consequently, these students may misperceive the events on the video and reinforce their misconceptions rather than challenge them. One way to address this is by incorporating common misconceptions in the video and disproving them.

How Can I Use This?

You might use these principles in the following ways:

  • as a guide to check your design decisions as you are creating learning resources.
  • in evaluating learning resources that you are curating for your courses (ie. videos produced by others).
  • in preparing questions to get students' feedback on the resource you create.


We are hoping to get some early feedback on this resource. If you have a CWL, please login and click on the discussion tab at the top of this page. If you are not affiliated with UBC, leave your comments on our Google form.

References & Resources

  • Note: Additional principles are discussed in a new edition of: Mayer, R. (Ed.). (2014). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139547369
  • Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2011). E-Learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumer and designer of multimedia learning (3rd ed.) San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
  • De Jong, T. (2010). Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: Some food for thought. Instructional Science, 38, 105-134.
  • Dwyer, F., & Dwyer, C. (2006). Effect of cognitive load and animation on student achievement. International Journal of Instructional Media, 33(4), 2006
  • Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed.). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.
  • Reich, J (2014). Short Videos are Better for Learning, Right? Maybe Not.
  • Renkl, A. (2005). The Worked-Out Examples Principle in Multimedia Learning. In R. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 229-246). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511816819.016
  • Sorden, S. D. (2012). The cognitive theory of multimedia learning. Retrieved from
  • Wylie, R., & Chi, M. T. H. (2014). The self-explanation principle in multimedia learning. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), Cambridge handbooks in psychology. The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (pp. 413-432). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

Video Resources

A video from Robert Talbert describing the use of screencasts in teaching and the pedagogical framework that goes into making different kinds of screencasts.
Slides and video from Dr. Richard Mayer’s presentation at Harvard
A 20-minute video interview with Dr. Richard Mayer, Professor at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research concerns the intersection of cognition, instruction, and technology.

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