Design Media for How We Learn

One of the most impactful textbooks I read in my instructional design (ID) program was that of Clark and Meyer’s (2011) E-Learning and the Science of Instruction on how best to design the multimedia for online instruction. This post addresses Chapter 2 on how we learn from online media and some takeaways for ID. I included supporting learning theories not included in the textbook. The purpose of this blog is to aid my memory on research–based practices and also to share it with others.

Dual Coding Theory

Dual channels refer to Paivio’s (1986) dual coding theory on how learners process information simultaneously via the visual and verbal systems. Paivio posited that these are subsystems of a symbolic representational system in the mind. This cognitive theory refers to the sensory register, a component of a nonlinear working memory model that explains the internal processing of information (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Baddeley, 1986). Essentially, the written word can be sensed through the eyes and ears, while images, nonverbal actions, and objects are only sensed through the eyes. See my blog post on working memory for more details.

ID Takeaways

  1. Multimedia content should not confuse the learner with narration about something other than what is printed for display (not verbatim though). For example, if an educator speaks off-topic when narrating a PowerPoint slide or mismatches the audio with the slide when producing, then this would force the learner to register (sense) conflicting pieces of information. This could cause the learner to select the wrong words or images related to the topic. 
  2. It’s imperative that the visual and verbal information be content-related in order for the learner to organize the content in their working memory for further processing into long-term memory (LTM). 
  3. It should also enhance the learner’s understanding (prior knowledge). Clark and Mayer (2011) refer to this last cognitive process as integration.

Cognitive Load Theory

Limited capacity refers to how much information an adult can hold and pay attention to at any given time. It’s been validated in research and has tenets in Sweller’s (1988) cognitive load theory. Sweller et al. (1998) recommended reducing distractions (extraneous elements) and delivering germane and intrinsic elements of instruction in manageable chunks. Humans are capable of remembering only seven plus-or-minus two pieces of information in their memory at any given time without the help of learning strategies (Miller, 1965). If self-regulation of the information does not occur, working memory is limited to three seconds duration in the auditory registers (Ward, 2010)—Take a moment to think about that!

ID Takeaways

  1. Instructional video segments should exclude extraneous elements (e.g., background music, fanciful font, or unnecessary images), be short (at-or-under five minutes), and concise to allow for essential processing.  Educators can make it more manageable for the learner through appropriate scaffolding (preteach new vocabulary, examples/nonexamples, and chunking). 
  2. To foster generative processing, an instructional video should provide psychological opportunities for practice that engage the learner. 
  3. Sweller (1988) cautioned instructional designers from taxing the learner with complex mental tasks like problem solving, which can result in a cognitive overload on working memory. Instead, he suggested providing worked examples and cases to enhance understanding. These minimalist techniques allow the learner to focus on, and process, the information.
  4. Include learning strategies to extend students’ working and LTM such as chunking, imagery, mnemonics, and rehearsal (West, et al., 1991).

Active Processing Principle

The active processing principle is based on the working memory model (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Baddeley, 1986). The main components of the model are sensory register, working memory, and LTM. The subcomponents of working memory include an executive control system, an articulatory loop, and a visual-spatial sketchpad. The executive control system selects information, plans, and then transfers information to LTM. The articulatory loop consists of the auditory and articulatory processes such as rehearsal. The visual-spatial sketchpad consists of the visual and spatial processes, which can also include rehearsal. 

ID Takeaways

  1. Aid the executive control system process by pinpointing the important information for the selection process. For example, use the video editor’s highlight feature to focus the attention of the learner. 
  2. Aid the rehearsal time by not overloading the working memory with too much new information. 
  3. Aid the visuo-spatial process with carefully selected images displayed in an uncluttered format. Bruning et al. (2011) recommend imagery as a way to encode information.

I’ll be adding more takeaways as I reflect and revisit this blog. I welcome your feedback! And I hope you find this helpful in your multimedia design for online learning.


Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory: Theory and practice. Oxford University Press.

Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47-90). Academic Press.

Bruning, R. H., Schraw, G. J., & Norby, M. M. (2011). Cognitive psychology and instruction. Pearson.

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2011). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (3rd. ed.). Pfeiffer.

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

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: A dual coding approach. Oxford University Press, Inc.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2): 257–285. doi:10.1016/0364-0213(88)90023-7.

Sweller, J., Van Merriënboer, J., & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review 10(3), 251–296. doi:10.1023/A:1022193728205

Ward, J. (2010). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. Psychology Press.

West, C. K., Farmer, J. A., & Wolff, P. M. (1991). Instructional design: Implications from cognitive science. Prentice Hall.

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