One of the many benefits of online learning is that you can easily integrate a wide variety of multimedia tools to present material to students in exciting and engaging ways. However, inserting a graphic or adding audio to a document isn’t inherently beneficial; indeed, such media can actually detract from student learning if you don’t incorporate them in the right places or at the right times. To that end, researchers Richard E. Mayer, Roxana Moreno, and John Sweller have identified several principles of multimedia that you should consider when preparing learning materials for your online course (, n.d.). wordsgraphicscontent

Multimedia Principle: Use words and graphics rather than words alone.

Graphics can not only help visually break up a dull black-and-white screen, but also lend to student understanding. In fact, students who are new to a complex topic often benefit from having visuals in addition to text. According to Clark and Mayer (2016):

An important part of active processing is to mentally construct pictorial and verbal representations of the material and to mentally connect them. This goal is more likely to be achieved with multimedia lessons containing both words and corresponding pictures that work together to explain the same to-be-learned content. (p. 79)

When you incorporate graphics in a presentation or e-book, make sure to do the following:

  • Include graphics that enhance meaning, not ones that are just decorative.
  • Use graphics to:
    • Represent facts.
    • Show relationships.
    • Show transformation.
    • Explain how something works.
    • Make an invisible phenomenon visible.
  • Use static illustrations rather than animations (with some exceptions).

Contiguity Principle: Align words to corresponding graphics.

According to Clark and Mayer (2016), “When words and pictures are integrated, people can hold them together in their working memories and therefore make meaningful connections between them” (p. 105). To meet the contiguity principle, make sure to do the following:

  • Place words in close proximity with the graphics they refer to.
  • Provide feedback close to the questions or answers it refers to.
  • Present directions on the same screen as the activity.
  • Have students read any text before starting an animated graphic.
  • Coordinate audio with graphics so students see and hear at the same time.

Modality Principle: Present words as audio narration rather than text.

People can only focus on a limited amount of information at one time (referred to as “working memory”). When a presentation has both text and graphics on screen, they compete for students’ limited working memory because students have to jump back and forth visually from the written text to the graphic to understand the content. You can solve this dilemma by removing the written text and instead using audio narration to describe graphics; that way, students’ working memory can use visual and audio channels to interpret information rather than splitting visual focus on two different things.

There are a few exceptions to the modality principle. For example, it is helpful to use text to do the following:

  • Define technical terms.
  • List key steps.
  • Give directions.
  • Help with references.
  • Present important information to non-native language speakers.

Redundancy Principle: Explain visuals with audio or text, not both.

When students are trying to read written text, they attend less to the visuals. Also, they may try to compare and reconcile text and narration, which burdens working memory. Therefore, if you add audio narration (such as in a lecture), avoid using a lot of visual text.

Exceptions to this rule include the following:

  • When there is no pictorial representation
  • When there is ample time to process both the graphic and the text
  • When students struggle more with spoken text than written text
  • When only a few select key words are presented next to the graphic they describe

Coherence Principle: Don’t use material that doesn’t support learning goals.

Including unnecessary information (e.g., background music, excessive visuals) impedes retention by making it harder for students to make sense of the material. If you include information that does not relate to learning goals, there’s always a chance that students will get distracted or think that the irrelevant information is important to remember, which takes their attention away from what they actually need to know.

To meet the coherence principle, be sure to do the following:

  • Avoid using extraneous graphics.
  • Avoid using extraneous audio.
  • Avoid using extraneous words.
  • Use simplified visuals (as opposed to realistic or detailed visuals) to highlight key points.

Personalization Principle: Use a friendly, conversational tone.

Stiff, academic language can be intimidating for students, especially if they are new to the subject. Instead, using a more informal, inviting tone can create a sense of social presence and support.

To create a friendly tone:

  • Use a conversational, not formal, writing style.
  • Write in first or second person (“I,” “you,” “we,” “our”).
  • Use polite speech (“please,” “you might like to,” “let’s”).
  • Speak naturally and personally when you write scripts and record audio.

Segmenting Principle: Break complex lessons into bite-size segments.

You don’t want to simplify complex content, so instead focus on simplifying the delivery. Breaking down large or complicated sets of information aids learning and retention.

To fulfill the segmenting principle, make sure to do the following:

  • Break down long segments into pieces.
  • Allow students to control their own pace.

Signaling Principle: Use cues to highlight important material.

Even if you eliminate all unnecessary information and break down content into small segments, you still have more opportunities to help students focus their attention on key information. For example, you can:

  • Pause in your narration to emphasize a point or indicate a transition.
  • Highlight headings or certain text using bolding, different colors, or other font tools.
  • Use arrows or circles to signal important words.

Pretraining Principle: Define terms before discussing complex processes.

Students can become incredibly frustrated if they have to pause frequently while they are reading or listening to a narration to look up words or concepts they are not familiar with. However, if you go over important terms before discussing them more in depth, this reduces the burden on students’ working memory. In other words, they won’t have to think about both what the terms mean and how they relate to learning objectives, but instead will be able to focus on the learning objectives.

Here are some strategies for the pretraining principle:

  • Provide examples. Viewing complete models of solutions helps students learn how to solve a problem before actually having to solve problems themselves.
  • Encourage self-explanations. When students articulate a concept themselves, it helps them learn the information more deeply.
  • Encourage active observing. Passive listening does not aid in retention; instead, try to give students opportunities to engage actively with the material in a way that encourages deep processing (e.g., polls, check-for-understanding quizzes).
  • Use varied examples. Different students may better relate to different types of examples, so you increase your chances of tapping into an individual student’s learning style if you provide multiple examples.

Key Takeaways

In summary, when using multimedia in your course, you should take advantage of knowing how students’ brains process information to create effective presentations. Here are the most important overall principles from this article:

  • Incorporating supporting visual aids can aid learning.
  • Too much information overloads working memory and harms students’ ability to understand key concepts.
  • A multimedia piece’s design should help organize and integrate information in a way that aids student retention.


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (n.d.). E-learning theory (Mayer, Sweller, Moreno). Retrieved from