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Creating Effective Multimedia Materials

Image with social media icons, a face, and graphic design overlapping. It is visually confusing, which will be discussed below.
Image credit: Pixabay

What is the most effective way to present materials to students using multimedia?

The short answer is to present both auditory and visual information in a simple format where the visual is paired synchronously with what you are saying or describing at that moment. Limit distractions like animations unless it is relevant to the process you are describing, and use little or no text if you have auditory information being presented (in other words, either text and images or audio and images). This strategy works well for most students because the brain processes the information through several sensory channels instead of just one, which increases the chances of the information being encoded into long-term memory.

Extensive research by Psychologist Richard Mayer published in Multimedia Learning (2009, now updated with a third edition in 2020) identifies twelve principles of design. These principles can be grouped into three categories: reducing extraneous processing, managing essential processing, and generative processing. This resource explores each of these three categories to create a basic guide for the layout, content, and creation of multimedia materials.

Reducing Extraneous Processing

When we think about cognitive load within the context of multimedia materials, we are talking about all the sensory stimulation and thought processes the student is dealing with at that moment in time as they are interacting with the video or lesson. Extraneous processing is cognitive load that is distracting the student from learning. It can be sounds, visuals, design, or other elements that are not required for the instructional goal but are present and distracting to the student. Thus, Mayer’s first group of principles all focus on reducing these distractions.

  • Exclude all extraneous sounds, images, or text that are not essential to your learning goal.
  • Signal to your student through cues how you have organized the essential ideas: e.g. “First….Second….”
  • People learn best with graphics and narration; but graphics, narration, and text on the screen can actually confuse or overload processing the information.
  • Put related words and pictures close together on the screen so the relationship among them is both visual and verbally explained.
  • Put related narration and pictures, charts, or demonstrations together in time as well location–presenting them simultaneously reinforces the relationship rather than presenting them sequentially, which may require the student to think back to an image presented earlier but no longer available.

One common example is background music, which many videos include to set a mood but continue to play it throughout the video while the primary speaker(s) talk. This can be very distracting and it is best to leave the music out when the students or viewers need to listen to what is being said.

Managing Essential Processing

According to Mayer, the second cognitive load placed on students when using multimedia materials is essential processing. This is the effort required to represent the information in working memory. Remember that working memory can only process seven items, plus or minus two, at one time–and this figure from George Miller’s research in the 1950s may actually be less today given the number of other technological and life responsibilities demanding our students’ attention at any given time.

If the student is currently processing your narration and five images on the screen that they have to relate to your narration to understand, they may begin to lose details or not process the information. We want students to process the information as easily as possible (essential processing of the details we want them to learn) and we can do that by breaking complex ideas or tasks down into a manageable flow of information.

  • Preparing students to learn the material is important; people learn better from the multimedia material when key terms or concepts have already been defined.
  • People learn better from graphics or images and narration than they do from animation and on-screen text.

Generative Processing

The third and final cognitive load involved with multimedia learning according to Mayer is generative processing. This is the deeper-level cognition that helps to organize and integrate the material with existing knowledge, a process fundamental to creating long-term memory and learning. Here are four principles that foster generative processing:

  • People learn better from words and pictures than they do from words alone.
  • People learn best from a conversational style rather than a formal style of presentation.
  • People learn best from hearing narration by a friendly human voice as opposed to a machine voice.
  • People do not necessarily learn better from a multi-media lesson when the speaker’s image is added to the screen, e.g. if you include a small window of yourself talking while also presenting slides or information.

When Principles Overlap

Mayer also explores boundary conditions for when these principles loose their effectiveness, many of which center on the complexity and pace of the presentation and the environmental or specific learning characteristics of each student. Not of all of these issues can be controlled in the real world, even though they do concern his efforts for controlled research experiments. Generally speaking, then, if you are considering these principles and providing accessible multimedia materials to students (with closed-captioning or alternative but equal content in other formats), then you are designing with effective multimedia strategies in mind.


If you scroll back up to the top of this page, you can look at the image tagged “social media” by Pixabay. But so you don’t lose your place on the page, or my point while trying to backtrack, I include it again below. This is an example where simultaneous presentation of visual with text information is better than sequential presentation. However, let us think about the image itself.

Image with social media icons, a face, and graphic design overlapping. It is visually confusing, which will be discussed below.
Image Credit: Pixabay

This might be an image we select to add some color and fun to a lesson. It is also a great example of limiting extraneous processing. While it might be fun to look at it during a lecture, it can also easily capture the attention of the student who is trying to figure out all the elements of the image and what it may mean. While pondering that artistic revelation, they just missed what you were saying. Culling images, text, animations, and other elements that can distract students is critical.

Here is another example, this time a video from Crash Course on U.S. History. You can view a few minutes of it now or after reading this paragraph.

The Crash Course videos seem engaging for students. They are within the 10-15 minute length guideline, generally speaking what is being shown and described mostly coincides, and the conversational tone make it approachable for students. That said, John Green speaks very quickly, there are so many animations and movements that you likely missed some, and there are terms and events that would be new for students (and difficult to take notes on at this pace). Ideally, breaking down the presentation into several videos on the history of slavery, providing an outline or key terms before the video, and using fewer visuals would make this a stronger learning tool.

Utilizing Pre-Built Multimedia Content

If you are selecting videos or materials from the internet or a textbook publisher, you may not have control over how the video relates information in the video or material itself. Try to select videos and lessons that have closed-captioning, which can help all students catch keywords and understand the information. There are some additional ways to try fit existing materials to your own instructional goals:

  • You can set any YouTube video to begin at set points in the video. This can be an excellent tool to segment content for students even if the original video is long. Here are instructions on how to set the start point. Unfortunately, TubeChop is no longer available to do this for you, so to segment a video you’ll need to provide students the links to begin at each segment you create.
  • You can use the site to incorporate review questions during a video, helping students have a moment to pause and reflect on the information as well as encouraging deeper engagement with the content.


Here are three quick statements covering the basics outlined above.

First, making your multimedia material with graphics and narration is best; limit your visuals to what is specifically being taught and align the timing of your narration to the timing of the visuals on the screen. Cue your listening with transitions that show your organization and relative importance of the information.

Second, define keywords or concepts before providing the multimedia lesson. Keep the multimedia segments or lessons short, ideally 10 to 15 minutes in length.

Third, presenting words and images or graphics simultaneously is best; keep a conversation tone and limit animations or including your own image in the corner of the recording to avoid creating distractions.

Additional Resources

Mayer, R. E. (2020). Multi-media learning (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Quality Matters Higher Education Program. (n.d.) Video length in online courses: what the research says. Retrieved from

Cite this page: Cannon, J. A. (2021, July). Creating Effective Multimedia Materials.

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