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The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning

reviewed by David Marcovitz - June 19, 2006

coverTitle: The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning
Author(s): Richard E. Mayer (Ed.)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521547512, Pages: 663, Year: 2005
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The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning is a compendium of what we know and what we don't know about multimedia learning from a cognitive perspective. In its simplest form, multimedia consists of words (either spoken or written) and pictures. In many ways, computers are simply the latest delivery mechanism for multimedia. However, computer technology allows for a level of complexity and control that, when used properly, can greatly improve learning.

Each of the book's 35 chapters follows the model of describing the specific principle(s) being discussed, describing the research base for the principle(s), tying the chapter to cognitive theory, outlining suggestions for instructional design, and describing the limitations of current research and avenues for future research. While this format might suggest that anyone interested in multimedia learning should read this book, I would suggest that novices and instructional designers might be better served by a more focused book. This book is clearly a book about research and for researchers; furthermore, it is a comprehensive look at the current state of the research. Anyone doing research in the field of multimedia learning should read the chapter or chapters of interest as the starting point (and quite nearly the ending point) for a literature review. Any doctoral student in search of a dissertation topic can find 100 or more right here.

What is striking about the book is how much is not known about its subject; most of the chapters do a good job of making clear what is currently lacking. The studies that are reviewed in each chapter are based on empirical research, mostly looking at recall and transfer of knowledge, with a great emphasis on transfer. The studies describe many limitations of the research, but the two that stand out are long-term retention and learning in natural settings. That is not a surprise given the focus on controlled experiments and the difficulty of longitudinal studies.

Each chapter is grounded in a cognitive theory of learning, which postulates that learning takes place when students are actively constructing knowledge by combining sensory inputs with prior knowledge to form mental models of what is being learned. Sensory inputs generally come through visual and auditory channels from which we select images and sounds to form pictorial and verbal models that are combined to form a single mental model. The formation of models takes place in our limited working memory. Although the details of this model are disputed in different studies, the basic premise of multiple input channels—feeding the formation of models in limited working memory—forms the conceptual framework for the book. Part I of the book covers details of this model and each chapter postulates slightly different forms of the model. Readers who are not concerned with further research about the model itself will be well served by reading one or two of the chapters in Part I.

Once we understand that active learning takes place in working memory, and we understand that working memory is very limited, we are ready to find out what the research says about a variety of techniques to reduce the cognitive load on working memory. If working memory is busy doing extra work (i.e., keeping track of redundant, extraneous, or more-complex-than-necessary information), then learning is decreased. Part II expands on the basic principles that can decrease cognitive load and make working memory more efficient. Each chapter in Part II details the empirical research base for several basic principles, including: “The Multimedia Principle” (pictures and words are more effective than pictures or words alone); “The Split Attention Principle” (cognitive load is increased when learners must integrate information from sources that are split physically and temporally); “The Modality Principle” (sounds and images are more effective than sounds or images alone); “The Redundancy Principle” (redundant information increases cognitive load as learners attempt to coordinate the redundant information); and lastly, “The Expertise Reversal Effect” (many designs that are good for novices lose their effectiveness as learners become more expert).

Almost any of the chapters in Part II give the same basic information so if your goal is to get a handle on the basic principles of multimedia learning, select one of the chapters and skip the rest. Because they each have a different focus, readers who are interested in a particular cognitive principle of multimedia learning or those who plan to extend the research in a certain area should choose the chapter that most closely matches their interests. For the novice reading this book, the basic concepts can be learned from reading chapters 2, 3, 6, and 12.

Part III (plus Chapter 13, which is the last chapter of Part II) covers advanced principles of multimedia learning. These chapters discuss such things as: the social and collaborative nature of learning, guided discovery and use of working examples, advantages and disadvantages of interactivity and navigational control, and how aging interacts with multimedia principles. While much is known in these advanced areas, the research and recommendations from the research are far less clear than for the basic principles. The “Site Map Principle” (Chapter 20) is a good example of an area that is ripe for research. While it is understood that hypertext environments can be problematic when learners use extra cognitive energy trying to find their way around, the research is thin about how to best solve this issue or how to determine when hypertext is most helpful.

Part IV relates the principles to specific content areas, including reading, history, mathematics, chemistry, meteorology, physical systems, second language acquisition, and cognitive skills. The preceding chapters dealt with general principles; these chapters do a good job of finding what is specific to a content area by tying multimedia and cognitive theory to learning theories in that area. For example, Chapter 24 links current ideas in history education regarding teaching students to think historically in a disciplined way via methods that can be supported by multimedia. Chapter 23 dives right into the national debate about reading education and provides information about how multimedia might benefit the learning of decoding skills, comprehension skills, and building interest in reading, each of which have distinct challenges and different ways that multimedia can help or hinder the process.

Part V closes the book by tying multimedia principles to advanced computer-based learning contexts. In many ways, all the principles described in the book are less important in traditional settings where mentors and teachers are available to overcome the deficiencies of multimedia environments. Part V emphasizes how important these principles are in such contexts as virtual reality, simulation environments, and distance learning. These complex learning systems have the most to gain by appropriate use of multimedia principles and the most need for future research.

This is not your typical summer beach reading. Picking and choosing a few chapters will give the reader a good overview of the multimedia principles in instructional design, but the power of this book is its comprehensive review of what we do and do not know in the field, a field that is building a research base for the instructional design of complex learning environments. This is an important contribution to the library of any multimedia researcher and is likely to become the standard source for where future research will lead.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 19, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12545, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 6:24:00 PM

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About the Author
  • David Marcovitz
    Loyola College
    E-mail Author
    DAVID MARCOVITZ is Associate Professor in the Education Department and Director of Graduate Programs in Educational Technology at Loyola College in Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign where he studied support for technology in elementary schools. He has taught computer applications and computer programming at the high school level, and he has worked as a technology specialist in a high school. Prior to coming to Loyola College, he taught in the educational technology program at Florida Atlantic University. He was hired by Loyola College in 1997 to develop a Masters program in Educational Technology, the program which he directs and for which he teaches many of the classes, including Multimedia Design in the Classroom. He is the author of several articles about educational technology as well as the book Powerful PowerPoint for Educators, and a recent book chapter, "Changing Schools With Technology: What Every School Should Know About Innovation."
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