Pleasant View Elementary School  Principal Gara Field works with first grader  Rachael Rodriguez  on a word game on an interactive screen during free time in Rodriguez' class this past May.© Gretchen Ertl/Hechinger Report

How can multiple learning methods be combined to improve learning?


People absorb information in many ways, and can often learn better when material is presented both verbally and non­-verbally.[i] One theory explaining this effect is that working memory — the area of the brain that holds and manipulates information before it is stored in long­-term memory — has separate channels for processing information that is seen and information that is heard.[ii] The brain can therefore process more information if it comes through both the visual and auditory channels of working memory.[iii]

Research demonstrates that multimodal learning environments that combine both audio and visual information are often more effective than traditional approaches that only present information in one form.[iv] In an analysis of dozens of studies, student learning outcomes were better when visual material was accompanied by spoken, rather than written, explanations.[v] As technology advances and is more widely used in schools, the potential for communicating information non-­verbally — through pictures, sounds, videos, animations, electronic games, and more — continues to expand.

While multimodal learning is often highly effective, it can actually hinder learning if it overwhelms students with too much information. Cognitive load is the amount of cognitive resources the brain needs to process incoming information.[vi] If the cognitive load of an activity or task is too high, attention and working memory are overwhelmed and learning and performance are inhibited.[vii] For example, extraneous cognitive resources are required to process a test that is typed in very small, tightly spaced font.[viii] The same can be true of multimodal learning, such as an electronic educational game with flashy visuals and excessive sound effects.[x]

The section below highlights some key findings from the research on multimodal learning.

Key Findings

multimodalMultimodal educational content should be designed to avoid overwhelming students with information.

Numerous studies have found that when more cognitive capacity is required to process elements such as visual layout, graphics, and animations, particularly in electronic media, cognitive load increases and learning is reduced.[ix] Cognitive load can be minimized by simplifying visuals, removing extraneous or redundant information, and reducing the amount of visual information contained on a single page or screen.[x] In this way, learners receive the benefits of multimodal learning without being overwhelmed by information.

Specific design features can help direct student attention within multimodal content.

In addition to optimizing the total amount of information presented, designers can use certain design features to direct student attention and reduce cognitive load. Attention cueing is the use of prompts to draw the learner’s attention to a specific part of a visual scene. In an animation, for example, arrows or spotlights could highlight certain parts of the screen, while important elements of the text or visuals might be bold or in a different color. This technique can improve students’ understanding and recall of material.[xi] Other studies have shown the importance of spatial and temporal contiguity — or the placement of related information (such as an image and corresponding word) close together in time and space.[xii]

Multimodal content should be tailored to students’ knowledge level.

multimodal2Students with less knowledge of a topic may benefit from well-­defined structures and guidance to help them organize new information and incorporate it into long­-term memory. However, these kinds of supports may actually interfere with the learning process for more advanced students (a dynamic known as the expertise reversal effect).[xiii] For example, advanced students may find extra audio and visual elements to be redundant, as these features increase their cognitive load without adding value. To address this challenge, designers of multimodal educational programming should consider removing redundant prompts as students advance.[xiv]

Research also shows that multimodal educational content is most effective when students can control the speed at which material is presented.[xv] For example, one study found that learner­-paced animations led to better outcomes than animations that followed a preset pace, even if learners only rarely took advantage of the ability to pause the action.[xvi]


Multimedia Learning

The Multimedia Learning subtopic includes studies on the use of multimedia and visuals in instruction, and how the brain processes this information. Several studies in this subtopic also review the effectiveness of these approaches in improving student learning.

Explanation & Instruction

The Explanation & Instruction subtopic includes research on different instructional approaches that are based on explanation of information, either by the teacher, peer-peer, or using computer tutoring / simulation.

Development of Expertise

The Development of Expertise subtopic explores factors that lead people to become experts in various fields or skills.

Podcasts & Learning

The Podcasts & Learning subtopic includes research on the use of podcasts in education, and studies of their effectiveness in improving student learning.

Pedagogical Agents & Learning

The Pedagogical Agents & Learning subtopic explores the use of pedagogical agents (human-like representations) in computer-assisted learning, and how it affects student outcomes.

Cognitive Load Theory

The Cognitive Load Theory subtopic explores ways this theory (focused on scaling students’ mental effort and working memory use to optimize learning) can be implemented in educational practice and research, and how the original theory might be revised.

Mobile Learning

The Mobile Learning subtopic includes studies on how mobile technology can be used to support student learning. Studies in this subtopic cover technology-based approaches to learning such as concept/knowledge mapping, formative assessment, and adaptive programs that meet the needs of each individual learner.

Digital Games & Learning

The Digital Games & Learning subtopic explores research on the effectiveness of educational games in the classroom, including their effects on a variety student outcomes such as engagement, motivation, content knowledge, and self-esteem.


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[i] An Evolutionary Upgrade of Cognitive Load Theory: Using the Human Motor System and Collaboration to Support the… [Review] Paas F, Sweller J,EDUC PSYCHOL REV (2012),
[ii] Sweller, John, Jeroen JG Van Merrienboer, and Fred GWC Paas. “Cognitive architecture and instructional design.” Educational psychology review 10.3 (1998): 251­296. Baddeley, A. (1992) working memory. Science, 255,pp.556­559.
[iii] Mayer, R.E. (2005) Introduction to multimedia learning. in R. E. Mayer (Ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
[iv] Meta­-analysis of the modality effect[Article] Ginns P,LEARN INSTR (2005), Mayer, Richard E.; Moreno, Roxana “A split­-attention effect in multimedia learning: Evidence for dual processing systems in working memory.” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 90(2), Jun 1998, 312­ 320.­0663.90.2.312 Wong, A., Leahy, W., Marcus, N., & Sweller, J. (2012). Cognitive load theory, the transient information effect and e­learning. Learning and Instruction,22(6), 449­457
[v] Meta­-analysis of the modality effect[Article] Ginns P,LEARN INSTR (2005),
[vi] Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4, 295­312. Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: some food for thought [Article] De Jong T,INSTR SCI (2010),
[vii] Paas, F., Van Gog, T., & Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive load theory: New conceptualizations, specifications, and integrated research perspectives. Educational Psychology Review, 22(2), 115­121. Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257­285.
[viii] Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4, 295­312.
[ix] Kirschner, P. A., Ayres, P., & Chandler, P. (2011). Contemporary cognitive load theory research: The good, the bad and the ugly. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(1), 99­105.
[x] Lee, H., Plaas, J. L., & Homer, B. D. (2006). Optimizing cognitive load for learning from computer- based science simulations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(4), 902­913. Plass, J. L., Homer, B. D., & Hayward, E. O. (2009). Design factors for educationally effective animations and simulations. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 21(1), 31­61.
[xi] Attention cueing as a means to enhance learning from an animation [Article] De Koning BB, Tabbers HK, Rikers RMJP, Paas F,APPL COGNITIVE PSYCH (2007), Towards a Framework for Attention Cueing in Instructional Animations: Guidelines for Research and Design[Review] De Koning BB, Tabbers HK, Rikers RMJP, Paas F,EDUC PSYCHOL REV (2009),
[xii] Meta­analysis of the modality effect[Article] Ginns P,LEARN INSTR (2005),
[xiii] Expertise reversal effect and its implications for learner­-tailored instruction [Review] Kalyuga S,EDUC PSYCHOL REV (2007),
[xiv] Expertise reversal effect and its implications for learner-­tailored instruction [Review] Kalyuga S,EDUC PSYCHOL REV (2007), Visual representations in science education: The influence of prior knowledge and cognitive load theory on… [Article] Cook MP,SCI EDUC (2006)
[xv]­ 20090426.pdf
[xvi] Learner control, cognitive load and instructional animation [Article] Hasler BS, Kersten B, Sweller J,APPL COGNITIVE PSYCH (2007),