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How do people actually learn?

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Do your teaching resources take into account the science of learning?

If they don't you may be cognitively overwhelming your students and/or not facilitating learning mastery.

I have several research-informed strategies to address this challenge which I explain in the short video below:

Mayer’s research into the principles of the cognitive theory of multimedia learning is essential to consider when trying to understand how humans process information and ultimately learn and achieve.

Mayer’s theory makes three assumptions:

1. The dual-channel assumption

2. The limited-capacity assumption

3. The active-processing assumption

According to Mayer, the dual-channel assumption reveals that, ‘humans possess separate channels for processing visual and auditory information’. These channels include the visual-pictorial channel (this processes images seen through the eyes) and the auditory-verbal channel (this processes the spoken word).

The limited-capacity assumption revolves around the premise that humans have a maximum cognitive load that means that they can only process a certain amount of information at any given time. Mayer points to this limit being of perhaps five to seven ‘chunks’ of information that can be dealt with and processed at once for some people.

The active-processing assumption highlights the notion that humans do not learn through osmosis, i.e. by passively absorbing information. In order to learn, humans need to be active. He points to the acts of selecting, organising, and integrating prior knowledge with new knowledge to create new or deeper meaning. Mayer’s constructivist interpretation of learning suggests that multimedia tools for learning and teaching are not simply delivery systems but are instead, cognitive aids for the construction of knowledge.

The learner’s construction of their mental model relies upon the instructor omitting what Mayer describes as ‘seductive details’ and instead focussing on simplicity prioritising the support of the learning goals. Reducing overwhelm is essential while overburdening the learner’s cognitive load is undesirable according to Mayer.

When learners are only required to connect their prior learning with new learning they have the best chance of mastery learning. A common theme throughout the principles of multimedia learning revolves around the idea of simultaneous presentation of text and images so that the learner is not forced to identify the meaning on their own.

Pacing and segmenting information is also key. Mayer points to the idea that learners learn best when they have control over the pace of the lesson. Being able to pause and replay video content or click through to the next slide or back to the previous slide creates such opportunities. Mayer also highlights the benefits of the pre-training where instructors define key concepts before explaining them in greater detail. This helps learners secure a degree of prior knowledge onto which they can ‘pin’ the learning in the lessons. In addition, narrated presentations with graphics are most effective for the learner, according to Mayer, when text is used sparingly. Using text should be used when listing key steps, providing directions or references, or presenting information to non-native speakers.

When using images, Mayer contends that they should clarify meaning rather than just offer decoration. Conversational style is preferable for learners according to Mayer who points to the importance of cultivating a social response in the learner.

The use of the instructor’s face in an asynchronous video may be beneficial when trying to establish relationships and teacher presence, however Mayer advises that the instructor’s face should only be incorporated into such multimedia contexts where there are no words or pictures.

Worthy of note is that Mayer contends that the ‘…design principles reviewed in this book may help low-experience learners but not help high-experience learners.’

Several reviews have explored different ways of presenting information and teaching to maximise the learning experience. Means et al found no evidence that adding multimedia to online instruction had any impact on learning outcomes, concluding that the teaching was more important than the medium itself. There was, however, some evidence that supporting learners to reflect on their own learning had a positive impact. This suggests that effective online learning experiences using multimedia resources, whether synchronous or asynchronous, have the ability to ‘bring to life’ materials, ideas and concepts presented by high quality, personable instructors.

Mayer suggests that this is more pertinent to those learners with limited experience and where the instructor understands the learners’ prior knowledge. He argues that, ‘prior knowledge is the single most important individual difference dimension in instructional design. If you could know just one thing about a learner, you would want to know the learner’s prior knowledge in the domain’.


R. E. Mayer Multimedia learning (3rd ed.), 2020 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press).

Barbara Means, Yukie Toyama, Robert Murphy, and Marianne Baki, The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Teachers College Record, 2013 115(3), pp 23.

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