MET:Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

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Richard E. Mayer, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of California

R.E. Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning (CTML) incorporates several concepts from both the science of learning (how people learn) and the science of instruction (how to design instruction).[1] It is built on the philosophy that "the design of e-learning courses should be based on a cognitive theory of how people learn and on scientifically valid research studies. In other words, e-learning courses should be constructed in light of how the mind learns and experimental evidence concerning e-learning features that promote best learning."[2] CTML is supported by Mayer’s extensive research involving testing learning theory while focusing on authentic learning situations. He calls this approach “basic research on applied problems.” Mayer’s research around CTML gave rise to his 10 principles of multimedia instruction.[3]

The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

File:CTML Diagram.png
Figure 1. Mayer's Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Mayer’s CTML contends that words and pictures presented to the learner via a multimedia presentation are processed along two separate, non-conflicting channels (figure 1).[2] They enter the sensory memory through the ears and eyes. Words and images are actively selected by the learner from the sensory memory and enter the working memory where they are organized into a verbal model and a pictorial model. Each channel can process only a few “chunks” of information at a given time in working memory. The two models are then integrated with prior knowledge retrieved from long-term memory. This integration occurs within the working memory following each segmented portion of instruction offered to the learner in the multimedia presentation.

Influence of the Science of Learning

Mayer’s CTML incorporates four elements from research on how people learn: (a) dual-coding theory, (b) limited capacity working memory, (c) active processing and (d) information transfer.[1]

Dual-Coding Theory

File:Baddeley Model.png
Figure 2. Baddeley's Model of Working Memory

Dual processing cognitive theory was first described by Allan Paivio in 1986.[4] The theory suggests that verbal and visual stimuli are processed separately but simultaneously in working memory. Alan Baddeley’s model of working memory (figure 2) also incorporated dual pathway concepts in the form of a central executive regulating a phonological loop and a visuo-spatial sketch pad.[5] He later revised his model to include an episodic buffer.

Limited Capacity Working Memory

It is postulated that the working memory can hold a limited number of items or “chunks” of information at one time which requires us to choose where to allocate cognitive resources.[6] Baddeley’s model of working memory recognized that although the central executive could store information, it was limited in its capability to do so. Cognitive load theory was developed by John Sweller who proposed there were limitations on the capacity of working memory and that cognitive load is cumulative in nature, which can affect the ability to learn.[7] [8] Mayer allows for the concept of the limited capacity of working memory by recommending segmenting of instruction and excluding extraneous information.

Active Processing

The CTML acknowledges that humans are actively engaged in cognitive processing in order to make sense of the stimuli presented. We do not passively receive information into our memory. The concept of active processing is reflected in the CTML by the inclusion of selecting, organizing and integrating information. In his book, Multimedia Learning,[1] Mayer states:

”Perhaps the most crucial step in multimedia learning involves making connections between word-based and image-based representations.”

Information Transfer

When meaningful learning takes place, people are able to retrieve newly acquired knowledge from long-term memory when they need it to perform a given task.[2] Transfer can be further divided into near-transfer for knowledge that is used immediately after learning it, and far-transfer for when knowledge is needed some time after learning it. Clark & Mayer recommend using worked examples to facilitate both types of transfer.

Influence of the Science of Instruction

From the science of instruction, three key elements are integrated into the CTML: (a) extraneous cognitive load, (b) essential processing and (c) generative learning.

Extraneous Processing

When information irrelevant to the learning objective requires processing, it is considered extraneous cognitive load. Extraneous information competes for the limited cognitive resources available in the working memory and as a result, interferes with efficient learning of the intended objectives. Sweller’s Cognitive load theory describes three types of cognitive load; intrinsic (caused by content), germane (relevant to learning) and extraneous (irrelevant to learning). Five of Mayer’s principles of multimedia instruction address reducing extraneous cognitive load.[3]

Essential Processing

Essential processing is the learner’s ability to understand the main points of the multimedia presentation.[2] What is processed by the learner depends on what is attended to or selected during the instructional period. When essential cognitive processing outstrips the learner’s intrinsic cognitive capacity, learning fails to thrive. For example, onscreen text presented simultaneously with animation causes split attention and the visual channel is overloaded. The design of the multimedia presentation can facilitate and direct selection of appropriate material for cognitive processing. For this reason, Mayer offers three principles for managing essential processing when designing instruction.

Generative Learning

Merlin C. Wittrock proposed a model of generative learning, which emphasized the importance of linking concepts, information, prior knowledge and experience.[9] Mayer puts forward two principles for fostering generative processing to deal with this concept.

Mayer’s 10 Principles of Multimedia Instruction

Five Principles for Reducing Extraneous Processing[3]

  1. Coherence Principle: People learn better when extraneous material is excluded from a multimedia lesson.
  2. Signalling Principle: People learn better when essential words are highlighted.
  3. Redundancy Principle: People learn better from animation with narration than from animation with narration and text except when the onscreen text is short, highlights the key action described in the narration, and is placed next to the portion of the graphic that it describes. In 2008, Mayer revised this principle to include the exception noted here.[10]
  4. Spatial Contiguity Principle: People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
  5. Temporal Contiguity Principle: People learn better when corresponding narration and animation are presented simultaneously rather than successively (i.e. the words are spoken at the same time they are illustrated in the animation).

Three Principles for Managing Essential Processing[3]

  1. Segmenting Principle: People learn better when a narrated animation is presented in learner-paced segments rather than as a continuous presentation.
  2. Pretraining Principle: People learn better from a narrated animation when they already know the names and characteristics of essential components.
  3. Modality Principle: People learn better from graphics with spoken text rather than graphics with printed text.

Two Principles for Fostering Generative Processing[3]

  1. Multimedia Principle: People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. This allows people to build connections between their verbal and pictorial models.
  2. Personalization Principle: People learn better from a multimedia lesson when words are in conversational style rather than formal style. If people feel as though they are engaged in a conversation, they will make more effort to understand what the other person is saying.[11] [12] [13]


Some criticism has been levelled at the CTML and the attending ten principles. For example, Astleitner & Wiesner note that the model does not take motivational elements into consideration. Motivation can impact learning, and consume memory resources thus affect cognitive load.[14]

Mayer’s research does not consider video and non-narrative audio. It is also centred on learning about physical and mechanical systems. Questions regarding the applicability of Mayer’s results to other situations arise from these constraints.[15] [16]

Reed mentions a concern about the lack of explanation for the integration process in the CTML.[16] How are the verbal and visual representations combined with prior knowledge in the working memory? Are the 2 representations merged to either verbal or visual, or does it take some other abstract form?

Other Multimedia Theories


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2007). E-learning and the science of instruction (2nd ed). Retrieved from
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Mayer, R.E. (2008). Applying the science of learning: Evidence-based principles for the design of multimedia instruction. American Psychologist, 63(8), 760-769.
  4. Pavio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual coding approach. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. 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.
  7. Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.
  8. Sweller, J. (2005). Implications of Cognitive Load Theory for Multimedia Learning. In R. Mayer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (pp. 19-30). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Wittrock, M. C. (1974). Learning as a generative process. Educational Psychologist, 11(2), 87-95. doi: 10.1080/00461527409529129
  10. Mayer, R. E., & Johnson, C. I. (2008). Revising the redundancy principle in multimedia learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, 380-386. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.100.2.380
  11. Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (2004). Personalized messages that promote science learning in virtual environments. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96,165-173.
  12. Mayer, R. E., Fennell, S., Farmer, L., & Campbell, J. (2004). A personalization effect in multimedia learning: Students learn better when words are in conversational style rather than formal style. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 389-395.
  13. Mayer, R. E., Sobko, K., & Mautone, P. D. (2003). Social cues in multimedia learning: Role of speaker's voice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 419-425.
  14. Astleitner, H., & Wiesner, C. (2004). An integrated model of multimedia learning and motivation. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 13, 3-21.
  15. Gall, J. E., & Lohr, L. (2004). [Review of the book Multimedia Learning, by R.E. Mayer]. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(3), 87-90. doi:10.1007/BF02504677
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Reed, S. (2006). Cognitive architectures for multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 87-98. Retrieved from
  17. Zhang, H., Wang, Y., Lou, Y., Li, G., & Zhao, B. (2008). Multimedia instructional design corresponded to cognitive psychology. In E. W. C. Leung et al. (Eds.), Advances in blended learning (pp. 155-164). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-89962-4_16

Further Reading

  • Austin, K. A. (2009). Multimedia learning: Cognitive individual differences and display design techniques predict transfer learning with multimedia learning modules. Computers and Education, 53, 1339-1354. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.06.017
  • Ayres, P. & Sweller, J. (2005). the split-attention principle. In R. Mayer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (pp. 135-146). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Low, R. &Sweller, J. (2005). The modality principle. In R. Mayer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (pp. 147-158). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mayer, R. E. (Ed.). (2005). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mayer, R. E., Hegarty, M., Mayer, S., & Campbell, J. (2005). When static media promote active learning: Annotated illustrations versus narrated animations in multimedia learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 11, 256-265.
  • 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. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.93.1.187
  • Mayer, R. E., & Jackson, J. (2005). The case for coherence in scientific explanations: quantitative details can hurt qualitative understanding. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 11, 13-18.
  • Mayer, R. E., Johnson, L., Shaw, E., & Sahiba, S. (2006). Constructing computer-based tutors that are socially sensitive: Politeness in educational software. International Journal of Human Compjter Studies, 64, 36-42.
  • Mayer, R. E., & Massa, L. J. (2003). Three facets of visual and verbal learners: Cognitive ability, cognitive style, and learning preference. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 833-846.
  • Mayer, R., & Moreno, R. (2002). Aids to computer-based multimedia learning. Learning and Instruction, 12(1), 107-119. doi:10.1016/S0959-4752(01)00018-4
  • Mayer, R. E., & Morena, R. (2002). Verbal redundancy in multimedia learning: When reading helps listening. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 156-163. doi10.1037/0022-0663.94.1.156
  • Mayer, R., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.
  • Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (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
  • Sweller, J. (2005). The redundancy principle. In R. Mayer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (pp. 147-158). New York: Cambridge University Press.

JenniferStieda 01:21, 4 July 2011 (UTC)