Cognitive Load Essentials for Effective Instructional Videos

An effective instructional video effectively communicates information and knowledge to its audience in a clear and engaging manner. There are several key elements that can make an instructional video effective, and cognitive load theory is an important element to consider.   The main idea behind cognitive load theory is that there are limits to how much information the human brain can process at once. When presented with too much information, the brain becomes overwhelmed, and learning and comprehension suffer.  Exactly, how does our brain process information?  Watch this video that explains the process. 

This article covers the twelve principles of multimedia learning developed by Dr. Richard Mayer on how to reduce cognitive load to optimize learning which can be helpful as you develop your instructional video. 


The 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning are a set of guidelines for designing educational material that effectively integrates words and images. These principles were developed by multimedia learning researcher Richard E. Mayer and are based on decades of research into how people learn from multimedia materials.

His principles really boil down to presenting information in a way that helps students easily know what to focus on; not overloading their working memory, and making multimedia effective.  Let’s take a look at the core message of his principles in each category.  Click here to see the terminology of these principles along with the core messages I refer to in this article.   

How to get started

  • Helping students to know what to learn

    • Less is more
      Only include relevant information that helps learners to understand the content.  When extraneous information that does not contribute to the learning goals is presented, your learners might not recognize the core information.

    • Highlight key ideas
      Learners learn better when they know what they should be learning or paying attention to. There are different ways to direct learners’ attention to the important content by using visuals with arrows, highlighting, or audio.

    • Keep texts and graphics close together
      If texts and graphics are presented, keep them close to each other to reduce learners’ cognitive effort of trying to locate them, and to enhance their learning experience.

    • Visual and audio occur at the same time
      When your narration and visuals are delivered concurrently, learners don’t have to spend extra effort to understand the content.

  • Ensuring students’ working memory is not overloaded

    • Break lessons into bite-size segments
      Breaking up videos into smaller digestible segments, not only can help learners more easily focus their attention on the specific information being presented but can also improve their retention and understanding of the material.

      If your video is short, be mindful of not packing too much information into a video. A helpful tip to consider is what’s the one thing you want students to remember by the end of the video.  You can also use the Table of Contents feature in Panopto to break down your materials into smaller pieces. This works well for long or short videos so learners can easily navigate and digest the content accordingly.

    • Ensure learners know key terms/concepts
      If lessons require students to understand new terminologies or concepts, plan to introduce these ideas first before they engage with the actual lesson.  This can be a downloadable document or practice exercises students can review first before diving into the new lesson. It’s especially helpful for students who are not yet familiar with the subject.  Knowing the level of your students is helpful to know if you need to provide pre-training materials beforehand.

  • Using multimedia effectively

    • Use graphics, narration, and on-screen text effectively
      Dr. Mayer’s cognitive theory mentioned that we use the dual channel (Visual and Auditory channels) to process information.  The visual channel processes information that is presented and the auditory channel processes spoken words.  Therefore, be mindful of using Graphics, narration, and on-screen text in your video so you don’t overload your learners’ auditory and visual channels.  For example, present one element per channel such as a visual presentation for the visual channel, and words should be conveyed verbally so learners can digest the content through their auditory channel rather than through written text on a screen along with the graphics.  By doing so, your learners will not overload their visual channels while listening to your narration.

      If you do use graphics and on-screen text, think about how they can work together to deliver and add value to the students.  If both are not related to each other, it does not help the student to advance but overloads their visual and auditory channels.  Include graphics that help your students understand the content you are teaching.  Think about what’s the best way to convey your message effectively.  Less is more.

    • Use a natural human conversational voice, not a synthesized voice
      Learning is a conversation.  Creating an engaging conversational experience is really about authentically showing who you are by speaking in a friendly human voice rather than a formal and machine voice. Doing that, not only personalizes your content but also increases students’ engagement rather than passively receiving information. 

    • Learners might not necessarily learn better from a talking head video
      The goal of the video is to help students to think about what they should be learning. Include a talking head video if you are trying to build connections with students or emphasize a specific point other than nonverbal expressions. For example, include a talking head video for welcoming students to a course and creating a connection with them, while a diagram or a visual may be better when creating a content-based video. It is important to consider the context and purpose of the video before making this decision.

Tips and takeaway

Creating instructional videos can be an effective way to engage learners and enhance their understanding and retention of the material. Here are some tips and takeaways from Dr. Mayer’s principles for creating effective instructional videos:

  • Keep it simple – Simplify the things that you create, so learners can focus on the core of the content. 
  • Short – Keep the video short and to the point.
  • Use graphics, narration, and on-screen text effectively – Be mindful of how you use graphics, narration, and on-screen text, and how they can complement each other to enhance understanding without overwhelming the audience’s senses.
  • Signal important ideas – By highlighting key concepts with visual cues or guiding questions. These methods can help draw students’ attention and emphasize crucial connections in the material.
  • Be yourself – Students are more likely to feel comfortable and connect with you if we show we are human like everyone else.