MET:Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning

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Richard E. Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML) outlines nine strategies for reducing cognitive load when designing or instructing in multimedia environments. His ideas, based on twelve years of research, have contributed to cognitive theory by providing practical applications that support learners to utilize higher order thinking skills in multimedia environments (Mayer & Moreno, 2003).

Learning Theories

Mayer’s CTML incorporate ideas from cognitive load theory and dual processing theory to explain how the mind works.

Cognitive Load Theory

Sweller’s (1994) cognitive load theory was among the first to consider working memory and its connection to learning and instructional design. Working memory involves the ability to hold and manipulate information. When handling new information, working memory is significantly limited in capacity and duration (Miller, 1956). Referred to as Miller’s Law, working memory can only hold 7 (plus or minus two) items or chunks of information at a time (Pavio, 1986). When processing is involved that demand higher order thinking skills, working memory is further compromised and learners might only be able to manage 2 or 3 items of information simultaneously depending on the type of processing required (Artino, 2008).

Types of Cognitive Load

Sweller identifies three types of cognitive load that impact working memory and make learning more difficult.

1. Intrinsic Cognitive Load: “Intrinsic cognitive load is imposed by the basic characteristics of the information rather than by the instructional design” (Sweller, 1993, p.6) It depends on the complexity of what needs to be learned, the expertise of the learner, and the amount of elements that must be processed simultaneously in working memory for learning to occur.

2. Extraneous Cognitive Load: The load imposed by the instructional designer as they structure and present information. Referred to as ineffective cognitive load, it requires learners to engage in working memory tasks not directly related to the learning goal (i.e searching for information that is needed to complete a learning task). When a high intrinsic load is combined with a high extraneous load, working memory is additionally compromised (Sweller, 1994).

3. Germane Cognitive Load: Also known as effective cognitive load, germane cognitive load contributes to learning rather than interfering. When intrinsic and extraneous load leave working memory capacity, cognitive resources are efficiently used in knowledge construction and learning (Sweller, 1994).

Dual-coding Theory

Pavio’s (1986) dual-coding theory views cognition as being comprised of two separate but interconnected channels for processing: the visual channel and the auditory channel. These channels can operate independently, in parallel, or through their connections. Working memory capacity and recall can be improved by utilizing both the visual and auditory channel together, rather than each one alone. This theory has been applied to the area of multimedia learning considering these types of presentations engage the visual and auditory channels simultaneously (Artino, 2008).

Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning

Mayer & Moreno (2003) outline three kinds of demands for cognitive processing in multimedia learning. The total processing intended for learning is cumulative and includes essential, incidental, and intrinsic. When defining these terms, Mayer connects his terms with Sweller’s theory.

Stop Motion Video

Cognitive load and Multimedia

Processing Demands

Referencing Sweller's (1994) theory, Mayer & Moreno (2003) outline three kinds of demands for cognitive processing in multimedia learning. The total processing intended for learning is cumulative and includes essential, incidental, and intrinsic.

Type of Processing Definition
Essential Processing (Germane load) Aimed at making sense of the presented material including selecting, organizing, and integrating words and selecting, organizing, and integrating images
Incidental Processing (Extraneous load) Aimed at nonessential aspects of the presented material
Representational holding (Intrinsic load) Aimed at holding verbal or visual representations in working memory

Load Reduction Methods

Cognitive overload can occur when the total intended processing exceeds the learner’s cognitive capacity. Mayer & Moreno (2003) outline five types of cognitive overload scenarios and includes recommendations for reducing the cognitive load associated with each type.

Types of Overload Scenario Load-Reducing Method Benefits
Type 1: Visual channel is overloaded by essential processing demands Off-loading: Move some essential processing from visual channel to auditory channel Modality effect: Better transfer when words are present as narration rather than as on-screen text
Type 2: Both channels are overloaded by essential processing demands Segmenting: Allow time between successive bite-size segments Segmentation effect: Better transfer when lesson is presented in learner-controlled segments rather than as continuous unit
Pretraining: Provide pretraining in names and characteristics of components Pretraining Effect: Better transfer when students know names and behaviours of system components
Type 3: One or both channels overloaded by essential and incidental processing (attributable to extraneous material) Weeding: Eliminate interesting but extraneous material to reduce processing of extraneous material Coherence effect: Better transfer when extraneous material is excluded
Signaling: Provide cues for how to process the material to reduce processing of extraneous material Signaling effect: Better transfer when signals are included
Type 4: One or both channels overloaded by essential and incidental processing (attributable to confusing presentation of essential material) Aligning: Place printed words near corresponding parts of graphics to reduce need for visual scanning Spatial contiguity effect: Better transfer when printed words are placed near corresponding parts of graphics
Eliminating redundancy: Avoid presenting identical streams of printed and spoken words Redundancy effect: Better transfer when words are presented as narration rather narration and on-screen text
Type 5: One or both channels overloaded by essential processing and representational holding Synchronizing: Present narration and corresponding animation simultaneously to minimize need to hold representations in memory Temporal contiguity effect: Better transfer when corresponding animation and narration are presented simultaneously rather than successively
Individualizing: Make sure learners possess skill at holding mental representations Spatial ability effect: High spatial learners benefit more from well-designed instruction than do low spatial learners

Technology for Load Reduction

Educanon begins with any Vimeo or YouTube video and transforms a passive experience to an active one by embedding activities that engage students as the video progresses. It allows multimedia to be presented in learner controlled segments rather than as a continuous unit. The video can be paused for questions or activities inserted by the useris segmented and pauses for questions or activities inserted by the creator. Students have question, answer and reflection time built into the video while the information is fresh.

Blubbr affords users the ability to create quizzes around YouTube videos they are interested in. Videos can be spliced and edited together to weed out extraneous material to reduce cognitive load. Create your own quiz from scratch, or browse a list of categories with templates for ready made quizzes. Students answer questions as they watch the video and receive feedback as they progress through each answer.

Tubechop allows you to cut a section out of any YouTube video by choosing your own beginning and ending point. You create a unique embed code for the section of video you've chosen and all advertising is stripped allowing students to solely focus on the content reducing the cognitive load. lets you present visuals from one video, and audio from another by copying and pasting URL's from similar videos. Like Tubechop, users can create a custom start and stop time, and remove advertising allowing students to focus on selected content.


Differences in visual and auditory processing will create a unique learning style for each individual. A type of assessment is needed before applying load-reducing methods. In addition, direct measures for determining the cognitive demand of instructional materials and the cognitive load of learners are needed to effectively design instruction. This would require future technology that would be capable of assessing the expertise of the learner and then adapting instruction in real-time to change student’s performance and cognitive load (Artino, 2008; Mayer & Moreno, 2003).


1. Artino, A.R., Jr. (2008). Cognitive load theory and the role of learner experience: An abbreviated review for educational practitioners. AACE Journal, 16(4), 425-439.

2. Mayer, Richard E. & Moreno, Roxana (2003). Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.

3. Miller, G.A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychology Review, 63, 81-97.

4. Pavio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual coding approach. New York: Oxford University Press. Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4 , 295-312.

5. Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4 , 295-312.

6. Sweller, J. (1993). Some cognitive processes and their consequences for the organization and presentation of information. Australian Journal of Psychology. 45(1) 1-8

Additional Resources

Reed, S. (2006). Cognitive architectures for multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 87-98.

Mayer, R., Heiser, J., & Lonn, S. (2001). Cognitive constraints on multimedia learning: When presenting more material results in less understanding. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 187-198.

Mousavi, S. Y., Low, R., & Sweller, J. (1995). Reducing cognitive load by mixing auditory and visual presentation modes. Journal of Eduational Psychology, 87, 319-334.