Multimedia principle


… or people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.

In any kind of training, it is customary to use words, either printed or spoken, as the main method of sharing information. Words are quick and cheap – an instructional designer doesn’t need specialist software or expertise to produce them. The question explored in this principle is whether there is a return on investment for supplementing words with pictures (either static or dynamic), and whether people learn more deeply from words and graphics than from words alone. Research results suggest that words and graphics are more effective when combined than just words alone, with some provisos:

  • graphics should not be an afterthought: they should be planned alongside the text to maximise understanding
  • decorative graphics do not improve learning

The rationale for combining text with graphics is that “people are more likely to understand material when they can engage in active learning” (Clark & Mayer, 2016. p71). Multimedia presentations that represent material in both words and pictures encourage learners to make connections between the pictorial and verbal representations of the information, making the experience more meaningful and more likely to be committed to long-term memory. By contrast, providing words alone may encourage learners – especially those with less expertise – to engage in shallow learning by not making connections with other knowledge.

There is more to instruction than simply presenting information, and page after page of text is rarely sufficient.

Selecting graphics to support learning

Clark & Mayer (2016) suggest that there are six possible functions of graphics:

Graphic typeDescription
DecorativeVisuals added for aesthetic appeal or humor
RepresentationalVisuals that illustrate the appearance of an object
OrganizationalVisuals that show qualitative relationships among content
RelationalVisuals that summarize quantitative relationships
TransformationalVisuals that illustrate changes in time or over space
InterpretiveVisuals that make intangible phenomena visible and concrete


Decorative: The dinosaur clipart image is presented purely for aesthetic appeal. In this instance, inclusion of graphics does not enhance or learning and this practice is to be discouraged.

Representational:The graphic provided here is just a representation of the piece of equipment being discussed. 

Organisational: This table provides information in a matrix form to describe the different approaches to backup procedure, and does so in a way that allows for easy comparison between the three different types.

Relational: This map of the United States shows the results of the 2016 Senate elections using party colours to show how each state voted. Use of a national map, and easily distinguishable colours, makes it relatively straightforward for learners to draw conclusions from the graphic.

Transformational: This diagram of the water cycle demonstrates the process over time, and is a helpful addition to the description on the right. Where sequences of steps are to be followed, visuals can help in making the steps easier to understand, especially for novice learners.

Interpretive: The diagram provided here illustrates the flow of blood through the heart in a simplified, pictorial form. Much like a subway map of the circulatory system, this diagram removes all extraneous information so the learner can focus only on this one system in the body.

“We favor a knowledge construction view in which learning is seen as a process of active sense-making and teaching is seen as an attempt to foster appropriate cognitive processing in the learner.”

- Clark & Mayer (2016, p76)

What the research says

Consistently, students who receive a multimedia lesson consisting of words and pictures perform better on a subsequent transfer test than students who received words alone. Across the eleven studies cited in Clark & Mayer (2016), a median percentage gain of 89% was achieved with a median effect size greater than 1 when comparing words with pictures and words alone. The multimedia effect “establishes the potential for multimedia lessons to improve human learning” (Clark & Mayer, 2016. p79), and it therefore belongs firmly at the top of this list of principles.

Based on these categories, it is recommended that decorative and representational images are minimised, and instead focus on graphics that help the learner to understand the material presented, or organise the material in a useful way.


There are some important caveats to the multimedia principle.

Learners aren’t always the best judge

While it is clear from the description above that not all graphics are equally effective, students frequently misjudge the value of these graphics. In a 2012 study, students did not learn better when added illustrations were purely decorative or seductive, though they reported liking the lesson better when it contained any kind of illustration.

Liking != learning

As a result of this inability to distinguish helpful and unhelpful illustrations, instructional designers should only use highly relevant, instructional illustrations, and even include pointers in the text as to what to look for in the provided illustrations.

There is a diminishing effect

A combination of words and graphics are particularly useful and important for novices, though less useful for expert learners. Experts are able to create their own mental images as they read a text, making use of relevant schema that they have formed previously in order to comprehend. The provision of words and graphics can actually negatively affect expert learners. If teaching a more advanced group of learners who are experienced in the topic being presented, they may be able to learn well mainly (or entirely) from text, or mainly from graphics.


A number of studies have failed to find that animations are more effective than a series of static frames depicting the same material. In summing up a study that compared an animation of how lightning storms develop with a series of static illustrations supported by printed text, Clark & Mayer explain this as follows:

“Presumably, the so-called passive medium of illustrations and text actually allowed for active processing because the learners had to mentally animate the changes from one frame to the next, and learners were able to control the order and pace of their processing. In contrast, the so-called active medium of animations and narration may foster passive learning because the learner did not have to mentally animate and could not control the pace and order of the presentation.”

Clark & Mayer, 2016. pp81-3.

When to use animations

Despite the results above, animations or videos have been shown to work well in tasks that show complicated manual skills. They worked well in a task where students made paper flowers and learned to tie knots, for example. In contrast to these examples, explanations of how complex systems work (such as braking systems, or waves in the ocean) have been shown to be just as effective or more effective when presented as static diagrams and text rather than animations. They can also be useful in time-lapse sense, showing phenomena that are otherwise difficult to visualise, such as seed germination or hummingbirds in flight. It seems that hands-on procedures can be guided effectively using animated visuals, but conceptual information is more effectively shared with static visuals.

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