Posted by: Ellie Kutz | December 16, 2011

Research on Multimedia and Learning

How might the use of multimedia contribute to students’ learning and thus to our teaching?  Several possible answers came to mind immediately:
  1. Our students, who are now used to the integration of media in other areas of their lives, are likely to be more engaged when they find such media being used in their courses.
  2. Students may actually learn more when they take in information through more than one channel.
  3. Faculty may be able to present materials that are more powerfully explanatory and thus enhance their students’ learning through the judicious use of multimedia.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about each possibility.

1. Are students more engaged in multimedia settings?
The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) offers an institutional assessment of how much students report being engaged in the sorts of activities that are linked to overall learning success and of the degree to which such activities are supported at each institution (see Engaging Learners Across the Curriculum in an earlier issue of this newsletter. But the NSSE focuses on benchmarks such as level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, and enriching educational experience and addressing these benchmarks doesn’t necessarily require the use of multimedia.

So is there any evidence that multimedia make a difference in engagement? The one study I found that attempted to directly measure students’ engagement and motivation related to NSSE benchmarks, focused on sections of an online psychology course with different amounts of multimedia, from none to multiple uses—images, video, narrated PowerPoint slides(Mandernach, 2009). While open-ended responses suggested that students felt more engaged in the course sections where more media were used, a quantitative analysis of survey results did not show significant differences. (The strongest focus across all sections was on “performance engagement,” on doing well in the course.)

Other evidence of student engagement comes from the study of problem-based learning, where inquiries into authentic, complex problems has been shown to increase students’ engagement in their learning, and analysis of observational and interview data from classes where multimedia were used in defining these problems (as in a history unit on the civil rights movement) suggests that a “multimedia problem-based unit provided an authentic context for encountering historical content, provoked empathetic views of historical dilemmas, and encouraged meaningful encounters with historical issues that promoted engagement and more advanced epistemological beliefs about history” (Brush and Saye, 2008).
So there’s at least some suggestive evidence that students perceive themselves to be more engaged in their courses when multimedia are used.

2. Can students learn more with multimedia?
Here too the evidence is mixed, and the enhancement of student learning seems to depend a great deal on how multimedia are used.  In a 2007 paper, David Swisher asked a question much like my own: “Does Multimedia Truly Enhance Learning?” and sought an answer through a review of several directions in research. Some of the earlier research involved “media comparison studies,” such as one in which participants were presented with text or video versions of a news story. Although participants who viewed videos (or other multimedia) in such studies experienced increased engagement and affective response, they didn’t do better on such traditional cognitive measures of learning as recalling and summarizing the content.

While such studies focused on straightforward information processing, others have looked at not only recall but also application, the transfer of information to new situations. The guru of multimedia learning (as evidenced by how often he’s cited by others) seems to be Richard Mayer of the Psychology Department at UC Santa Barbara. Mayer’s research has shown that when visuals are used in direct support of textual information, as when graphics are used to illustrate a point (such as how a bike pump works), participants who have had both graphic and textual explanations are better able to both recall and apply that information than those who received only textual explanations. It seems that as long as an illustration is directly relevant to the point being made and it appears in proximity to the text it’s connected to, it helps learners to make connections across different modes of representation. If not (if, for example, it appears on the next page in a textbook), it becomes more of a distraction than an enhancement, and increases the cognitive load on the reader who is processing the material (2001).
Where students are asked to do more than recall information—when they’re involved in the more active sense-making associated with a constructivist view of learning—receiving information from different media (and thus through different information channels) seems to matter more, perhaps in part because providing information through two channels, visual and auditory, may help to spread the cognitive load for processing that information. Yet it becomes important that learners make meaningful connections between the things that are represented in different modes. When learners can put their cognitive resources toward building such active connections, they perform better in both retaining and applying information and the close pairing of text and illustrations and of narration and animation resulted in both better retention and increased transfer to the solving of new problems (Mayer, 2001).

3) Can the use of multimedia help faculty make the presentation of their materials more powerfully explanatory, in ways that better support student learning?

Recent work by Rob Lue, a biology professor at Harvard University, builds on the above understandings about multimedia and learning. As described in a Harvard Magazine article on the use of new media by Harvard faculty (Lambert 2009), Lue has been studying the effects of using animations that show how biological processes occur, looking at students’ retention of basic facts and their ability to intepret new data and integrate them into a coherent model as well as their motivation to learn, and found significant gains in all three areas. He describes his efforts as”opening a window on a world that we don’t have the tools to see with our eyes” and explains that ” Scientists create visual models in their heads, and now we have the tools to share those models with students” thus helping students to develop the “synthetic thinking” that’s essential to work in the field (3).

Lue’s work connects to Mayer’s understanding that multimedia are most effectively used when they focus on several key elements of the learning process: selecting and converting verbal representations into visual and vice versa; building coherent mental representations; and integrating new information into long term memory in a way that can be used to solve transfer problems. (Mayer, 2008)

Finally, a few principles for best practice are emerging from the work of Mayer and his colleagues (see Clark and Mayer, 2003)who have found that

  • Helpful uses of multimedia include providing representative graphics to illustrate concrete facts and concepts; animation to illustrate processes, procedures, and principles; organizational graphics are to show relationships between and among ideas and lesson topics; and interpretive illustrations such as graphs to convey relationships between variables.
  • Multimedia need to be immediately relevant and closely tied to instructional content (not merely decorative as in the clip art or irrelevant audio tracks that often accompany student presentations).
  • It’s important not to overload students’ processing capacity by offering too much information in visual and auditory modes at once. For example, we keep hearing that less is more on PowerPoint slides and that we should reduce the text, but it seems that if we ask students to process textual information along with images (both use a visual processing channel) while giving a verbal explanation that they have to process aurally, we may overload their cognitive processing capacity, while if we offer just the image and the spoken words, we reduce that processing load.
  • And it’s important not to get carried away and be overly redundant in the use of media. Although getting information in two modes seems to be helpful to learning, getting too much information across modes at the same time is not. Students learn better, for example, from an animation with narration than with an animation, narration, and text . (It seems that too much redundancy increases working memory load, which interferes with the transfer of information to long-term memory.)
  • Finally, it seems that personalized media, media that the professor has created or adapted to the course, are more effective than more generic media.

I plan to test my own uses of multimedia against these best practices in the future.

Brush, Thomas and Saye, John (2008) “The Effects of Multimedia-Supported Problem-based Inquiry on Student Engagement, Empathy, and Assumptions About History,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 4. Retrieved from

Clark, R. C. & Mayer, R. E. (2003). e- Learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Lambert, Craig. (2009). “ Professor video.” Harvard Magazine. November/December. <,2>

Manderach, B. J. (2009).  Effects of instructor-personalized multimedia in the online classroom.  IRRODL.  Retrieved from
Mayer, R. E. (2008). Applying the science of Learning: Evidence-Based Principles for the Design of Multimedia Instruction American Psychologist 12 1 2008 760-68. 
Mayer, R.E. (2005). The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Swisher, D. J. (2007). “Does Multimedia Truly Enhance Learning? Moving Beyond the Visual Media Bandwagon Toward Instructional Effectiveness.” Kansas State at Salinas Professional Day Papers. Retrieved from


  1. Ellie,

    While the evidence is mixed regarding the value of multimedia in learning and teaching, I think there is plenty of evidence faculty are increasing the use of rich media in their courses. In addition, students themselves–without direction from their faculty–are contributing multimedia resources within their online courses through links in discussion forums, digital assets uploaded directly to the course, etc.

    To support this claim, I would offer an internal study by UMassOnline (presented at the 2011 Sloan-C Northeast Regional Conference) querying over 40,000 courses from three years, which found over 420,000 links to external references, including many multimedia resources. For example, multimedia resources hosted by services within the .edu domain included over 56,000 links to mp3’s, 3000 Real Media files, 380+ .mov’s. This is just one example. We also queried eight other of the most common domains for fifteen common media types (e.g. .mp3, .mp4, .rm, .pdf, .swf, etc.). Of course we did not include .jpg/.jpeg, .gif, .png or other common graphics file types.

    Based on the above, I would offer, in addition to any debates that might arise regarding the appropriateness of multimedia to enhance courses, we should also expect a debate on how to generate, store, share and distribute the media.


  2. There’s little doubt that both faculty and students increasingly see the use of multimedia as playing an important role in teaching and learning. The problems of storage and distribution will only grow, I suspect. While these concerns are part of our conversation at a campus level, I imagine that they’re also under consideration system-wide.

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