Creating Effective Educational Multimedia Content

Understanding how people learn can harness the educational potential of multimedia content.

Many multimedia content creators intuitively understand how to create engaging, memorable materials. A quick look at YouTube or TikTok reveals a plethora of influencers who have created successful channels based not just on what they have to say, but on how they present their material. Whether they know it or not, these influencers often produce multimedia content that aligns with e-learning theories and strategies. How can educators harness these same theories to make educational multimedia materials engaging and effective?

Human Cognitive Architecture

To understand effective multimedia instruction, it is important to first understand how people learn. Cognitive scientists have been studying the building blocks of the learning process for decades, and many of the theories they have developed naturally overlap and build upon one another. For example, while it is generally accepted that humans have short- and long-term memory, one important theory posits that short-term memory consists of sensory memory (where we filter raw sensory information) and working memory (where we actively “think” about the sensory information that made it through our sensory memory before it has the possibility to pass to long-term memory). Additional theories include the cognitive load theory, which states that a person is only capable of holding a limited amount of information in their working memory at once, and the dual-coding theory, which states that a person simultaneously processes and stores information through separate but interconnected auditory and visual subsystems. Utilizing these subsystems properly through multimedia sources can lead to more information being processed at once. Utilizing these channels improperly, however, leads to decreased learning outcomes.

The Cognitive Framework for Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning
diagram created by Andrea Woudenberg-Harvey

Building on these theories and extensive additional research, psychologist Richard Mayer and his associates developed a cognitive theory of multimedia learning (CTML). The CTML comprises six principles describing how people process information from multimedia sources, and it is a useful tool to aid curriculum development in today’s interconnected classrooms.

The Split-Attention Principle and The Modality Principle

Individuals learn better from multimedia presentations with animations when the verbal information is presented in audio rather than in text for both concurrent and sequential presentations.

How can we use it?

We can address these two principles in a few ways. First, make sure students have enough time to process information, no matter how it is presented. Second, when possible to do so, provide verbal narration when showing visuals rather than overwhelming students’ visual working memory by only providing written text. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all text should be eliminated. Rather, be aware of the amount being used and stick with keywords and phrases if possible.

The Redundancy Principle

Individuals learn better from multimedia with graphics when language-based information is provided as narration only, rather than as narration with identical text presented simultaneously, such as in captions.

How can we use it?

This principle illustrates that less is more. Instead of providing identical text and audio narration, stick to just narrating.

The Spatial Contiguity Principle

Individuals learn better from multimedia with graphics and text when the graphics and text are integrated together, rather than separated spatially.

How can we use it?

When creating materials that use both visuals and text, place the visuals and text near one another. For example: When creating a slideshow presentation, place the text near the image or integrate the text into the image, rather than keeping them in separate parts of the slide. When creating a diagram, put the labels next to the parts they are labeling rather than separating them visually. When illustrating the steps of a process, integrate the text of each step into the visual with call-outs, rather than listing all of the steps together in a separate place.

The Temporal Contiguity Principle

Individuals learn better from multimedia when corresponding graphics and text are presented at the same time or separately in short segments, rather than separately in large segments.

How can we use it?

When presenting a visual, show it at the same time as the narration or the essential text, instead of just showing the visual and then displaying the text or providing the narration. Present information in smaller segments or chunks as appropriate.

The Coherence Principle

Individuals learn better from multimedia when extraneous graphics and audio are excluded.

How can we use it?

Yes, GIFs and emojis are cute. They are also distracting. Keep it simple. Create engagement that is directly related to the material. Only include what is necessary.


Since the CTML’s initial publication in 2000, each of the six principles has been extensively studied in a variety of scenarios. While many researchers have replicated these principles, it is important to note that they are not always appropriate for every audience or for every learning goal. For example, including redundant captions with narration is a requirement for many students, and it actually improves learning outcomes for students with low reading levels. 

In addition, Mayer has since published additional principles of multimedia learning, which are worth investigating. These include using conversational tone instead of formal tone, using a human voice for narration instead of a computer-generated voice, and pre-training by building background or providing guides for the essentials before or during a course.

The CTML is a useful tool for developing multimedia content when utilized correctly. General best practices include presenting visuals with narration and keywords and phrases; presenting information in manageable chunks; and integrating text and visuals. Using these principles to guide multimedia content creation—from a single lesson to a yearly curriculum—can help boost engagement and maximize learning outcomes.


Atkinson, R. C. & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 2, 89–195.

Mayer, R. E. (2017). Using multimedia for e-learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 33(5), 403–423. 

Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (2000, February 5). A learner-centered approach to multimedia explanations: Deriving instructional design principles from cognitive theory. Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning.

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual coding approach. Oxford University Press., J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257–285.