Richard Mayer is one of the most influential educational researchers: His theory of multimedia learning is widely cited, and his resulting principles for how to design learning materials have become a kind of gold standard in the instructional design world. The journal Contemporary Educational Psychology ranks Mayer as the No. 1 most productive educational psychologist in the world.
Since the pandemic hit, his research findings are more relevant than ever, as instructors look for guidance on what works as they move their teaching online.
EdSurge recently reached out to Mayer, who is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, to get his thoughts on the lessons his research reveals that can guide teachers and professors.
Graphics Usually Help
One key finding of Mayer’s work confirms what might seem like common sense: Graphics work when it comes to explaining complicated subject matter. “If you have words and pictures, people understand the information much more than if you just have words,” he says. Specifically, a mix of graphics and words can help students better apply a concept learned in a lesson to a new situation, such as on a related assignment. Without the images—say, an illustration of the forces that cause lightning strikes—students could recall the words but were less able to demonstrate a conceptual understanding of the phenomenon. He calls that “the multimedia effect.”
Mayer has also worked to put a number on how much more effective teaching with multimedia is compared to words alone. Like many education researchers, he tries to conclude the “effect size” of any intervention he tests. For him to recommend an intervention, he says he has to consistently find that a practice has an effect size greater than .4, meaning that “it would improve your grade by probably half of a grade point—to say, boost you from a B to a B+.” Often, he says, his interventions have the greatest impact for students performing really poorly.
Don’t Repeat Verbatim Information in Words and Graphics
Over time, Mayer has noticed that some forms of multimedia lead to more effective learning.
He’s created 15 evidence-based principles for how to design multimedia. Perhaps the most surprising one is that repeating the same information in text and in audio in a video lesson or animation can actually hinder learning.
Consider an animation used to describe how lightning works. If the captions below the image repeat the same words that are flashing by during the animation, the repetition actually does more harm than good, his research shows.
“That creates an overload of your visual system,” he explains. “If you’re looking at the words, then you’re not looking at the animation. If you’re looking at the animation you’re not looking at the words. So it works better to put the words next to the part of the animation you’re talking about.”
Similarly, repeating the same words in the soundtrack of a video and captions on the screen is often less effective than using audio alone. He calls this the “redundancy principle.”
This finding runs counter to practices that are common in professional training videos, says Ruth Clark, a consultant who co-wrote a book with Mayer called “e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning.”
“The common wisdom was if you had a graphic, you should have some text and you should repeat that text in audio—which actually turns out to depress learning,” she says. “One of our themes is less is usually more.”
Show Your Work
Some of Mayer’s latest research involves testing what kinds of instructional videos work best.
One finding is that students learn better if they see a video of the professor actually working out a math problem or concept on a whiteboard, than if they see a video of the same professor standing next to a whiteboard where the problem has already been worked out.
A possible explanation can be found in a longstanding concept called embodied learning, which finds that students identify with the instructor during class. So perhaps when you’re watching a video of a professor working out a problem, he says, “You kind of feel like you’re drawing it along with her, and that gets you more involved in the learning process.”
Research shows that a professor’s attitude matters. So when filming educational videos, instructors should make sure they’re upbeat.
“People learn better from a more positive instructor that has a more positive voice and more positive gestures than from someone who has a more negative emotional tone,” says Mayer. “How the instructor behaves has a very big effect on learning.”
Before the pandemic hit, Mayer had started trying to apply his rigorous research approach to the latest form of multimedia—virtual reality.
Specifically, he was doing research with learning materials delivered on the Oculus Rift. “We’re looking at whether that’s really a useful medium and how you can use that to maximum benefit.”
He says that the corporate training industry and the military have been far more eager to adopt his research and other learning science findings than K-12 schools or colleges.
But he says that acceptance of research is growing in traditional education.
“There’s always been this hope and dream in the field of education that it could be based on a scientific approach,” he says. “I do think things are improving. I know that educational leaders are interested in taking an evidence-based approach.”