Week 11: Making Educational Content that Works

The end of the term, and by extension the end of this directed study, is coming up — so I decided to lean into the participatory nature of technology, and jumped on Twitter to let the people decide what I covered next:

As one can see, “video as a teaching tool” came in solid first, so let’s give the people what they love. This will be especially useful for libraries at educational institutions that might make this kind of content, but the information is good to know for anyone who finds themselves in the realm of online content generally.

(disclaimer: this is also particularly useful since I prepared & delivered a talk on this very topic this summer at EDUCon, a presentation from which I’m borrowing very heavily in this post.)

Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia

Any discussion about YouTube as an educational tool should probably start with a discussion of Dr. Richard Mayer. Some of Mayer’s earliest research around the topic dates back to 1983 when he looked at how repetition aided learners in memorizing facts and principles. The next couple decades of his research expanded to cover other aspects of cognition (do images help, and if so, how?) and modality (is there a difference between information seen and information heard? How about between words heard and words read?), and by 2001 he had a working theory about how to use multimedia to help folks learn and published the first edition of his book, “Multimedia Learning.” In it, he outlined three main ideas and 12 principles for those who wanted to use multimedia to enhance education.

Main Ideas

The three main ideas that he developed can be summarized as follows:

  1. People take in information in two ways, or channels: auditory and visual
  2. Each channel can only take in so much information at a time — that is, each channel has finite bandwidth.
  3. Learning is a four-step process of filtering, selecting, organizing, and integrating information.

Principles of Multimedia Design

Reducing Extraneous Processing

When it comes to reducing extraneous processing for learners (recognizing and working within bandwidth constraints), he found that people learn better…

  1. … when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.
  2. … when cues that highlight organization of the essential material are added.
  3. … from graphics & narration, rather than from graphics, narration & on-screen text.
  4. … when corresponding words and pictures are presented near each other, rather than far from each other.
  5. … when corresponding words & pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.

The idea behind this all is recognizing first that the learner has finite bandwidth, and thus making sure that the amount of information sent their way doesn’t overload what they can handle. That’s why in #3 above, it only recommends two forms of input rather than three. In his book (cited below,  #2) he further explains with a nifty diagram that on-screen text likely gets treated by the brain first as a visual input and then is translated into audio input (speech) by the brain, which is why it isn’t recommended when narration is already present. It also split’s the learner’s visual bandwidth between the text and any images.

Managing Essential Processing

Once information is pared down and prepared for presentation, media creators can take certain steps to help learners’ brains manage essential processing. From this, he found that learners learn better…

  1. … when a lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit.
  2. … from a lesson when they know names & characteristics of the main concepts.
  3. … from graphics & narration than from animation & on-screen text.

With #1 and #2, this is to do with how brains are, ultimately, different from each other. He also found (related to #2) that learners with high-background knowledge vs low-background knowledge saw different levels of effectiveness in how all of this work; see slide 9.  Related to #1, this is actually somewhat less relevant for YouTube content because users have control over playback and pace. Although a lot of content on YouTube has trended between 3-5 minutes, the reasons are complicated and mostly unrelated to how much people get from it (and that’s been changing as YouTube’s algorithms began privileging videos that drive longer on-YouTube session times).

Fostering generative processing

Finally, there are steps one can take to make sure that one’s processing power is utilized as much as possible (using as much bandwidth as efficiently as possible) — also known as generative processing. He found that people learn better…

  1. … from words & pictures than from words alone.
  2. … from lessons when words are conversational rather than formal.
  3. … when narration is in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.

However, people don’t necessarily learn better when a speaker’s image is added to the screen.

These last points are all about how, once the “content” you’ve created has been optimized for learners, the information they’re taking in is actually likely to stick. Although #1 may sound counter to the #3 way up top of “only use 2 inputs, not 3,” it’s worth mentioning that Mayer’s  research also looked at multimedia in the sense of static documents as well as videos. So this #1 relates more to having labels, rather than transcriptions.

His final point about having a speaker’s image is also interesting because it suggests that the image of a speaker is inconclusive. There’s probably an argument to be made for including the image of a speaker as a way to drive personal connection (see vlogs), and with that connection you might be more likely to drive folks to come back and engage in learning generally, even if they aren’t necessarily getting more out of each session.

Mueller: Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education

In 2008, Dr. Derek Muller wrote his thesis on how to make effective video content that taught people concepts and ideas in physics, and some of what he found didn’t exactly contradict what Mayer had found, but it did introduce some auxiliary ideas around what effective learning looks like. Whereas Mayer’s work was largely concerned with the cognitive side of the house, Muller’s work looked more at learner behavior and attitudes and how they shaped their experience working with learning from video content specifically.

Specifically, he found that when people watched a video explaining an incorrect but plausible way that a concept in physics works, and then were told how the concept actually works, they were more likely to learn the concept than if they were told how it works without first presenting the false information.

In a plot twist to end all plot twists, he actually used to demonstrate this principle on his own channel, Veritasium — which sits at just under 5 million subscribers — by doing walkabouts in cities and asking folks how they thought different things worked.

As shown in the above video, he then follows through by explaining how things actually work, which is a pretty cool way to do it.

He doesn’t do videos this way any more mostly though, instead favoring more curiosity-driven content. While his reasons are unknown, my pet theory is that while his research is sound, actually going into the public and proving folks wrong on film (and then sharing it with the world) isn’t exactly “polite.” Plus, he’s also to the point in his career where he has actual documentaries under his belt.


So, this is just some of the research out there that looks at how to make effective videos for teaching purposes. It’s by no means exhaustive, however; if you want to see some other research looking specifically at educational YouTube videos and how they’re used, I recommend popping over to my slides — I feature 6 other articles with quick summaries and highlights.

Thanks very much, and until next time, don’t forget to ask questions.


  1. Mayer, R. E. (1983). Can you repeat that? qualitative effects of repetition and advance organizers on learning from science prose. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(1), 40-49. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.75.1.40
  2. Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning. second edition. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Muller, D. (2008). Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education. Available online at http://sydney.edu.au/science/physics/pdfs/research/super/PhD(Muller).pdf 

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