Multimedia Principle: Adding Graphics to Words Improves Learning

Some think that a designer’s own technical capabilities and intuitive beliefs are far more influential on the design of most training materials than any proven, research-based principles.(1)  But even if it’s totally natural to be guided by your skills and intuitions, how do you know whether they’re leading you in the right direction?

With the prevalence of easy-to-use tools like Articulate Studio ’13 and Articulate Storyline, nearly anyone can create training—even if they don’t know how to design training. Which is why we think it’s a good idea to know about the research-based guidelines for designing instructional materials that lead to better learning results.

Richard Mayer is a professor of psychology at the University of California who studies how to present information in ways that help people better understand it, including how to use words and pictures more effectively. He has spent over 25 years researching how the design of multimedia instruction—lessons containing words (printed or spoken) and pictures (illustrations, photos, animations, or video)—affects learning.

Mayer and his colleagues have established a number of guidelines for designing instructional materials that have been shown to improve learning. One of Mayer’s guidelines for designing instructional materials is the multimedia principle, which simply says that people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. (2)

Multimedia Principle in E-Learning

In ten different studies, Mayer and his colleagues compared learning about various mechanical and scientific processes from lessons that used words alone to those that used words and pictures. In all ten, learners who took a multimedia lesson comprised of words and pictures performed better than those who received the same information only in words. On average, there was an 89% improvement in learning when pictures were included. (3)

Sounds like a good reason to get rid of lessons with nothing but screens and screens of text, right? Yes—but before you rush to fill your screens with pictures, note that not all pictures are equally effective. In some future posts, we’ll look at a few more of Mayer’s principles to learn the specifics of how to use visuals to improve learning.

In the meantime, you can learn more about the multimedia principle and the rest of Mayer’s principles in “E-learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning” (Public Library)


1  Park, I., and Hannafin, M. (1994). Empirically-Based Guidelines for the Design of Interactive Multimedia. Educational Technology Research and Development, 41, 63-85.

2  Mayer, R. E. “Introduction to Multimedia Learning,” in R. E. Mayer (Ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

3  Clark, R. C., and R. E. Mayer. E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, 2nd edition. San

Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2007.

Mayer, R. Applying the Science of Learning: Evidence-Based Principles for the Design of Multimedia Instruction. American Psychologist, November 2008, 760-769.

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Jeffrey Dalto
Chris Roetzer

It was nice to come upon this post, Rich Mayer has some compelling research on this topic and when studying him during my grad cert program at UF, I picked him as an educational psychologist to study for a project. His theory of multimedia design is really intriguing and after learning about him and the principles, I definitely put some of those to work in my design strategies (and also stopped doing some things that he found to be ineffective). In my most recent class (Designing Integrated Multimedia Environments), interestingly my professor didn't disparage Myer in any way but he did want to point out to me a criticism of Mayer about which to be aware, I suppose to keep it in perspective. The criticism seemed to be regarding how authentic the trails or learning environments were. I k... Expand