Teach and/or support learning

How students learn, both generally and within their subject/disciplinary area(s)

What can I do?


What is this about?

Signaling refers to the use of visual or other types of cues to help guide the learner's attention and focus on the most important information. This can involve using bold text, highlighting, or other visual formatting to signal the main points or key concepts in a text or lecture, or using gestures or other nonverbal cues to help the learner follow along and stay engaged. The goal of signaling is to help reduce cognitive load on the learner by focusing their attention on the most important information and making it easier to process and remember new concepts. By using signaling effectively, educators can help improve learning outcomes and student engagement.

What's the evidence say?

Where possible, time signalling with your speech

Poor practice

A typical image, powerpoint slide, or journal article presents all the data at once. Students don't know where to start.

In a typical powerpoint slide, students don't know where to start
In a typical results table, students don't know what information is important

Good practice

Use a laser pointer, mouse cursor, or highlighting to help students see what is important

You can time information to come out one at a time

Cover up the least important content with white boxes, then remove them to slowly build the image, so people know where to focus first instead of getting lost.

Signalling consistently improves learning.

Across many outcomes signalling improves learning. It helps students to retain information and transfer it to nearby problems. It makes people feel less overloaded, more motivated and helps them focus their eyes on what is important.

Mental space is limited. Keep it for the most important stuff.

How signalling is explained by Cognitive Load Theory

  1. We, as experts, always underestimate how hard it is for novices to know what is important
  2. We put everything up because we know where to focus; we know what is not relevant
  3. Students don't know what is irrelevant. The irrelevant stuff fills their mental space.
  4. By pointing to what is important, they don't waste their precious mental space with irrelevant stuff. It's kept for the important stuff.

What's the underlying theory?

Cognitive load theory is a psychological theory that explains how the human cognitive system processes and learns from new information. Signaling can help reduce cognitive load by guiding the learner's attention and focus on the most important information, making it easier for them to process and understand new concepts. For example, using visual formatting or gestures to signal the main points or key concepts in a text or lecture can help the learner follow along and stay engaged, and can make it easier for them to remember and understand new information. By reducing cognitive load, signaling can help improve learning outcomes and student engagement.

Where does the evidence come from?

We can be confident in this effect.

This effect has been replicated across 5 meta-analyses.

  • The largest of these reviews we GRADED 3 / 5 ...
  • Was a systematic review of randomised trials
  • This review included a wide range of samples, had narrow confidence intervals, and was robust to publication bias.
  • But...
  • It did not assess risk of bias
  • The remaining heterogeneity was unclear


Schneider, S., Beege, M., Nebel, S., & Rey, G. D. (2018). A meta-analysis of how signaling affects learning with media. Educational Research Review, 23, 1–24.

Alpizar, D., Adesope, O. O., & Wong, R. M. (2020). A meta-analysis of signaling principle in multimedia learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development: ETR & D, 68(5), 2095–2119.

Richter, J., Scheiter, K., & Eitel, A. (2016). Signaling text-picture relations in multimedia learning: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 17, 19–36.

Xie, H., Wang, F., Hao, Y., Chen, J., An, J., Wang, Y., & Liu, H. (2017). The more total cognitive load is reduced by cues, the better retention and transfer of multimedia learning: A meta-analysis and two meta-regression analyses. PloS One, 12(8), e0183884.

Xie, H., Wang, F., Zhou, Z., & Wu, P. (2016). Cueing effect in multimedia learning: A meta-analysis. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 48(5), 540.

Additional Resources

We made this one-page summary of good multimedia design. It pulls together most of the key strategies of Cognitive Load Theory. We also made a 30-minute series of videos on the topic here (key video for this summary at the bottom of this page.