Multimedia Theories of Learning

There are several different theories of multimedia learning that provide instructional design guidance. They include:

  • Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)
  • Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML)
  • Integrated Model of Text and Picture Comprehension (IPTC)
  • The Four-Component Instructional Design Model (4-C ID)

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT):

Cognitive load theory is largely based on the functions of memory, both long-term and working memory. Learning and understanding are seen as an alteration to long-term memory. CLT also emphasizes the importance of schema, which are mental constructs that allow multiple elements of information to be categorized as a single element. Learning happens as these schema are acquired into long-term memory.

Working memory, however, is quite limited, able to hold only a few elements of information for very short periods of time. CLT directs the development of instruction to stay within the confines of working memory.

CLT distinguishes between three kinds of cognitive load (the load a task places on the learner's congitive system):
  • Intrinsic Cognitive Load - the difficulty of the material in relation to the learner's abilities
  • Extraneous Cognitive Load - load caused by inappropriate instructional design
  • Germane cognitive load - cognitive processing and the construction of schemata

These loads add together to make up the cognitive load, which cannot exceed the capabilities of working memory if instruction is to be successful.

Several instructional design principles and guidelines flow out of Cognitive Load Theory, with the primary purpose of reducing or eliminating extraneous cognitive load. Among these are:
  • worked example effect
  • split-attention effect
  • modality effect
  • redundancy effect
  • expertise reversal effect

CTL resonates with me for several reasons. The limitations of working memory is something I found especially intriguing. I have been studying various productivity ‘gurus’ and their techniques. They stress the importance of capturing information in a trusted system, since it is impossible to keep it in working memory. In fact, much of the stress people feel comes from trying to remember everything they need to for the busyness of life. Unless one’s cognitive systems trust that a meeting time, phone number, or idea is captured and can be retrieved, that system will try to remember it. Since the working memory can only hold 7 items, if one tries to hold onto 8, one will get lost. Unfortunately, we have no control over which is lost.I have experienced the limitations of working memory in the classroom as well. I must constantly remember that elements that are already schema deep in my long-term memory are still new to my students. This is not a problem when the concept is relatively simple, but for more complex ideas that require many components I can see the limitations of working memory first hand. Since the students have not had a chance to solidify the components as schema, they are quickly overwhelmed.

I also agree with the break down of cognitive load into intrinsic, extraneous, and germane categories. I can see the effects of intrinsic load as students are first exposed to new material. In the Introduction to Audio Recording course I teach each spring (MUSC 365), prior experience ranges from some students with absolutely no prior experience to others who have had several courses in other departments and real-world experience. These students all encounter the same material, but those with little prior experience have a much higher intrinsic load, so they reach the limitations of their working memory much sooner, and have more difficulty with the material.



This site makes a large assumption about the users’ expertise with the particular site. The first time I visited to, I could not understand how it was organized. I was met with a seemingly infinite number of choices and had no idea what to click next. Because there was an enormous gap between the expectations of the site and my understanding of it, I began with a large intrinsic load that left little room for germane load . While the site designers cannot control a visitor's expertise before they arrive, they can start with a simpler page that helps novice users and then removes that support as the user becomes more familiar with the site.

HigherPraise websiteHigherPraise.jpg

Besides being a striking example of poor graphic design, this site has an overwhelming amount of extraneous load. It clearly demonstrates the redundant effect. The site has redundant hyperlinks on the left side, at the top, and in a block in the middle. While the designers may think that this makes it easier for a visitor by giving them lots of options, it actually confuses the user with too many of the same options.

Sweller, John. Implications of Cognitive Load Theory for Multimedia Learning