02 April 2012

The Multimedia Principle - A quick guide

infographic by: Indi Samarajiva
The Multimedia Principle: When designing for learning, use words and graphics rather than words alone.

This little starlet of learning research is both well-established and deceptively simple.  Introduced by multimedia learning guru, Richard E. Mayer, it's at the core of what we do, but it has some important caveats.  it's a staple concept in instructional design practice, and its overt relevance to interface design decisions makes it essential career food for Learning Interface Designers.  Take a bite...

The gist:  Your learners will learn better if you combine words (text or audio) with pictures (illustrations, photos, video, animation, etc.) as compared to words alone.

Key Details:  The focus here is not on decorative graphics (which can waste cognitive power or distract focus), nor is it on representational graphics (eg. generic stock photo of topic), but rather on explanatory graphics:  Graphics that help the learner process and interpret the information.  These include:
  • Relational graphics (like graphs for comparisons or interactive systems models), 
  • Graphic organizers (which organize concepts discussed in the text) 
  • Transitional graphics (which show change over time) 
  • Graphics that show things that are otherwise invisible (atomic structure, greenhouse gas flow, global movement of money, etc.)  
Graphics can also help place learning in context when you situate learning in a virtual version of the real-life context (eg. a relevant GUI metaphor or a virtual world).

For more on graphics for learning, see the post: explanatory graphics.

Animations or static text?  It depends.  Research shows that animations (including video) are better for teaching motor skills, or hands-on procedures (see post: When to use animations for learning) while a series of static graphics (like a series of frames showing a process over time) perform better for promoting the understanding of processes.  This is apparantly because we are hardwired to learn motor skills by observation since early on in our evolution. The understanding of complex processes, however, is not quite so primal.  The problem with the animation is it does too much of the work for us and the pacing is not in our control, so we become passive viewers. In contrast, with a series of static images we are required to make connections internally and we can do so at our own pace.

The disclaimer:  The above principle is not true for experts.  That is to say, it mainly applies to novices.  This is called the expertise reversal effect.  It's not that experts will necessarily be harmed by having both words and pictures, it's just that they don't need them.  They'll do just as well with one or the other - presumably because they have already developed their own visualizations as part of their mental models.

Go to the source: For more details, pick up the latest edition of E-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth C. Clark and Richard E. Mayer.

For a summary of Mayer's complete list of principles, see the post: Mayer's Principles for the design of multimedia Learning.