A Model for Understanding Dr. Rich Mayer


Dr.  Rich Mayer is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California — Santa Barbara who has bridged from his roots in cognition into educational psychology. If one traces his career, the influence of Dr. Mayer is very quickly evident. Over his long and incredibly prolific career, Dr. Mayer was one of the first and most comprehensive scholars to delve into multimedia learning — including knowledge transfer from online and game-based environments to students. He was one of the pioneers in understanding how education is experienced and integrated from the emerging instructional technologies, and outside of the more traditional classroom “chalk-and-talk” approaches. He was also a pioneer in shifting from simple output assessment (i.e., the facts and figures  that students memorize) to the quality of their learning and whether they can transfer principles to new paradigms.

Dr. Mayer introduces himself:

As Dr. Mayer described, he started in cognitive and experimental paradigms in graduate school and quickly shifted to the study of knowledge transfer and education. That may seem subtle, but for a scholar it is a fairly distant leap. One must first consider that the methodological paradigms are different. Who are the participants (human or animal? child, college-age, older?)? What the tasks entail (presenting mazes to animals, lists of words to adults, or educational materials?)? How many trials, how to analyze the findings, who the audience is for those findings: these are all large differences in approach, process, and culture. There are also independent journals, conferences, and professional organizations subserving educational psychology.

In fact, over the years we have seen more and more distance between subdivisions in Psychology. Educational psychology is a good example of this trend towards division in Psychology as many in Ed Psych complete their graduate training and find professional positions with schools and educational academic departments (housed within education oriented colleges), while most every other psychology sub-discipline will be housed within psychology departments leading to academic involvement in experimental or clinical psychology (housed with science or social science colleges). Dr. Mayer is somewhat unique in his career for maintaining such a cognitive/experimental focus while moving into an applied area of psychology for his scholarship.

While it jumps ahead in Dr. Mayer’s life quite a bit, here are some of his reflections on the Educational Psych when considering his time as the past president of APAs Div. 15: Educational Psychology in this next excerpt:

The American Psychological  Association’s 54 active divisions include a humanistic group, a trauma group, a neuro group, a health group, an I/O group so many other aspects of the current field. The point is to underscores the journey that Dr. Mayer would eventually undertake: from Math to Cognitive Psych, and from Cognitive to President of Div. 15 and a career among the most respected in Educational Psych.

Dr. Mayer was exposed to Psychology early in his life. He recalls working with his father, an I/O psychologist as a teenager in this next excerpt:

I/O (industrial/organizational) psychology is another interesting sub-discipline that is part of psychology, but closely affiliated with business, and other large social structures (e.g., military). Dr. Mayer’s father carved out niche doing job placement and organizational support to large corporations in Cincinnati, OH. Moreover, he directly involved Rich in his practice while he was still a teenager. Rich was tasked with running psych tests for intelligence, personality, language and other important attributes.  In doing so, he earned some extra cash working with his dad,  and was exposed to psychological testing, scoring, and reliability assessment. All important  aspects of applied psychology and prevalent in education.

At home, Rich was also fairly curious and exploratory. He had interests in the local plants and outdoor life around him.  He liked to find interesting things from his neighborhood and understand them more fully via the lens of his microscope.  Along side that in his basement lab, Rich had a chemistry set where he could investigate the chemicals and  reactions they produced. He also had an early interest in electronics and motors, and would regularly take apart devices and attempt to put them back together (occasionally even doing so successfully). If you have an understanding of Rich as a bright, curious, and methodological child, you are probably in the ballpark of who he was in early life.

Rich completed his undergraduate degree at Miami University (Oxford OH) in the mid-to-late 1960’s. During that period he was active, engaged, and experienced a lot of personal growth. He recalled some of that experience in this next excerpt:

“One man, one mother!” That was definitely a protest slogan specific to the cultural context of the time — but it made the point. And a point that is made with alliteration is a memorable one.  Rich and his fellow students were able to facilitate change on their campus for greater freedom and autonomy. As Rich formed more of his social identity and global outlook, he also found his academic interests. He started as a business student, who soon drifted into economics and more academic pursuits. In his junior year he switched into Psychology where he luxuriated in the capacity to understand behaviors using experiments and evidence. The child who took apart engines, and gazed through his microscope at collected specimens, enjoyed the mechanistic possibilities of using research to understand behaviors.  The discovery process excited and enticed him as he completed his bachelors in Psychology with academic honors in 1969, and moved directly into graduate school.

Dr.  Mayer attended the University of Michigan and worked with noted Psychologist Dr. Jim Greeno. To that point, Dr. Greeno’s scholarship focused on Mathematical Psychology with important involvement in verbal learning behaviors. From his early days, Rich loved math saw this field of mathematical psych as a natural fit for his interests/abilities moving forward. During his graduate tenure both Drs. Mayer and Greeno shifted into new research interests stemming from their collaboration.

Dr. Mayer recalls the theoretical discovery from his graduate school research that helped launch his professional approach for the years ahead:

They were, of course, working from common interests in math and its application to psychology. Quite organically from those interests his graduate studies investigated knowledge development and instruction with binomial equations. A lot of students struggled with binomial equations and in this research they were able to investigate some of the processes involved in developing an understanding of this topic.  In the decades leading up to this research, the major emphasis was always how much was learned. What was the total gain in knowledge?  That kind of question is, by comparison, somewhat easier to assess and still represents an important part of education. The difference here was an emphasis on could and would their participants be able to understand the technique and apply outside of the original examples. That kind of cognitive expansion to integrate and apply a new technique is more difficult and required a different kind of learning than was featured to that point. Dr. Mayer’s graduate research and thesis reflected that movement to a more qualitative understanding of the process and cognitive changes that might occur with different instructional techniques.  Clearly that inspiration has stayed with him and continues to guide his scholarship today — even as new technologies have emerged.

In this next excerpt, Dr. Mayer summarized some of the implications of his research over the years. Notably, he advocates for using multimedia in traditional classroom and online learning environments — but using a strategy VERY different than is often emphasized.

Using visuals that are redundant/additive to a text or verbal description is great. Those big effect sizes we discussed  were  this fantastic finding in Dr. Mayer’s research in which students retained and understood information much better with appropriate uses of visuals.  But there is a caveat. Animations move fast. They can be distracting. So minimize. Use simple, informative animations and nothing more.

We now have a wealth of tools for creating beauty, artistry, dynamic settings, and wildly engaging set of images. The very difficult thing is restraining from all of that. As per Dr. Mayer’s research, understanding and retaining information will be greater when the student has control over the pacing; when the student has redundant information from the available sources (what she sees, hears); and when the student is able to stay focused on the information. Technology does not lead the way, the educational model that best meets the needs of a student is what leads the way. Get the structure right, then use the technology (modestly, conservatively) to get the result.

There is much more from Dr. Mayer and I look forward to sharing it with you in the book!

Here are some of the wonderful publications of Dr. Rich Mayer:

Mayer, R. E. (1979). Twenty years of research on advance organizers: Assimilation theory is still the best predictor of resultsInstructional Science8(2), 133-167.

Mayer, R. E. (1979). Can advance organizers influence meaningful learning?Review of Educational Research49(2), 371-383.

Mayer, R. E. (1982). Memory for algebra story problemsJournal of Educational Psychology, 74(2), 199-216.

Mayer, R. E. (1984). Aids to text comprehensionEducational Psychologist19(1), 30-42.

Mayer, R. E. (1989). Models for understandingReview of Educational Research59(1), 43-64.

Mayer, R. E. (1989). Systematic thinking fostered by illustrations in scientific textJournal of Educational Psychology, 81(2), 240-246.

Mayer, R. E. (1992). A series of books in psychology. Thinking, problem solving, cognition (2nd ed.). New York, NY, US: W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.

Mayer, R. E. (1997). Multimedia learning: Are we asking the right questions?Educational Psychologist32(1), 1-19.

Mayer, R. E. (2002). Multimedia learning. In Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 41, pp. 85-139). Academic Press.

Mayer, R. E. (2003). Elements of a science of e-learningJournal of Educational Computing Research29(3), 297-313.

Mayer, R. E. (2003). The promise of multimedia learning: using the same instructional design methods across different mediaLearning and Instruction13(2), 125-139.

Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning?American Psychologist59(1), 14-19.

Mayer, R. E. (Eds.). (2005). The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning. Cambridge university press.

Mayer, R. E. (Eds.). (2008). Learning & Instruction. New Jersey: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall. (Free to download and use!)

Mayer, R. E. (2008). Applying the science of learning: Evidence-based principles for the design of multimedia instructionAmerican Psychologist63(8), 760-769.

Mayer, R. E. (Ed.). (2014). Cambridge handbooks in psychology. The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (2nd ed.).New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. John Wiley & Sons.

Mayer, R. E., & Alexander, P. A. (Eds.). (2016). Handbook of research on learning and instruction. Taylor & Francis.

Mayer, R. E., & Chandler, P. (2001). When learning is just a click away: Does simple user interaction foster deeper understanding of multimedia messages? Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(2), 390-397.

Mayer, R. E., & Gallini, J. K. (1990). When is an illustration worth ten thousand words? Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(4), 715-726.

Mayer, R. E., & Johnson, C. I. (2008). Revising the redundancy principle in multimedia learningJournal of Educational Psychology, 100(2), 380-386.

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (1998). A split-attention effect in multimedia learning: Evidence for dual processing systems in working memoryJournal of Educational Psychology, 90(2), 312-320

Mayer, R.E. & Moreno, R. (2002). Animation as an aid to multimedia learning. Educational Psychology Review 14(1), 87-99.

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist38(1), 43-52.

Mayer, R. E., & Sims, V. K. (1994). For whom is a picture worth a thousand words? Extensions of a dual-coding theory of multimedia learningJournal of Educational Psychology, 86(3), 389-401.

Mayer, R. E., Stull, A., DeLeeuw, K., Almeroth, K., Bimber, B., Chun, D., … & Zhang, H. (2009). Clickers in college classrooms: Fostering learning with questioning methods in large lecture classesContemporary Educational Psychology34(1), 51-57.

Moreno, R., & Mayer, R. E. (1999). Cognitive principles of multimedia learning: The role of modality and contiguityJournal of Educational Psychology, 91(2), 358-368.

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