Digital Media – a Constructivist view of principles

Constructivism is part of the Cognitivist gene pool, and as such it is appropriate to look at the impact of digital media on cognition and learning.

In E-Learning and the Science of Instruction (2003), Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E Mayer explore the research on the impact of media in e-learning across seven design principles:

  • Multimedia
  • Contiguity
  • Modality
  • Redundancy
  • Coherence
  • Personalization
  • Practice Opportunities/Simulations

Clark and Mayer assert that broadly speaking

Learning results from designing learning materials with the right instructional methods regardless of how the information will be delivered [my italics]. …To help learners acquire new knowledge and skills, instructional methods including media elements such as sound, text, and graphics as well as learning aids such as practice exercises, must support human cognitive learning processes.


Regardless of the theoretical approach or instructional design used, learning happens in accordance with the capabilities of two memory components: working and long-term memory, as shown in Figure 1.

Effective eLearning including digital media supports critical psychological learning processes

Fig 1. Effective e-learning including digital media supports critical psychological learning processes

Working memory is where ideas are generated and learning takes place. However, working memory has a very limited capacity – according to Miller (1956) working memory has the capacity to retain 7±2 chunks of information. When working memory fills with even limited amounts of information, its processing power diminishes rapidly.

Long-term memory has a vast capacity for information storage; it is a person’s knowledge and memory repository. However, long-term memory provides storage only – all the cognitive activity takes place in working memory. In learning, the goal is to create environments in which learners actively process new information in the working memory in ways that lead to storage in long-term memory. When needed, this information can be retrieved into working memory.

Positive learning outcomes require instructional methods that accommodate the limits of working memory and encourage processing of new information for storage in long-term memory.


The primary cognitive processes to be engaged include:

  • Attention
  • Management of load in working memory
  • Rehearsal of new information in working memory that results in encoding in long-term memory
  • Retrieval of new skills back into working memory when needed.

The authors suggest the following principles can be used to enhance the effectiveness of learning:

  • Include both words and graphics as long as the graphics convey information that
    is being taught and are not merely decorative.
  • Place corresponding words and graphics near each other.
  • Present words as audio narration rather than onscreen text.
  • Presenting words as both text and simultaneous audio narration can interfere with
  • Adding interesting, but unnecessary, material can interfere with learning.

With this in mind, how much practice do learners need? We know that skill improvement can continue over many practice sessions—although with diminishing returns. The greatest amount of learning occurs in the first few practice sessions. How much practice to include depends on the criticality of the skills you are building, and on the extent to which performance can improve on the job. For some tasks, such as landing an airplane, it’s critical that the first performance is highly effective.

In other cases, learners can continue to practice and improve on the job. [Ruth Clark’s] recommendation is to adjust the amount of practice according to the criticality of the tasks and the cost benefits generated by additional practice opportunities.

(2007, p.9)



Clark, R. (2007). Leveraging multimedia for learning. Use instructional methods proven to align with natural learning processes [Internet] Available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/9630411/Captivate-Leveraging-Multimedia Accessed 23 May 2017

Clark, R. C. and R. E. Mayer (2003). E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer.

Merrill, M. D. (2006a). First Principles of Instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth & A. Carr (Eds.), Instructional Design Theories and Models III (Vol. III). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Merrill, M. D. (2006b). First principles of instruction: a synthesis. In R. A. Reiser and J. V. Dempsey (Eds.) Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology. Columbus: Ohio, Merrill Prentice Hall.

Miller, G. A. (1956) The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. The Psychological Review, 63(2), pp. 81-97