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Using Multimodal Instruction to Enhance Student Understanding

Instance Description

Multimodal Instruction is just what its name suggests; it provides multiple modes of instruction, including verbal, graphic, numeric, or multimedia, to expose students to the same concept repeatedly. Multimodal instruction enhances learning in two ways: first, by allowing students to experience learning in the way they are most comfortable, and second, by challenging students to experience and learn in other ways (Picciano, 2009). If you are looking for a way to help students construct a deeper understanding of complex scientific concepts (Ainsworth, 2008) or want to keep students engaged in learning (Tobin, et. al., 2014), creating multimodal instruction may be a good option. A side benefit of using multimodal instruction is that your content will engage a larger number of students, including those with disabilities, varied language skills, or cultural differences. It may take a little longer to create your content, but the return on your investment will be well worth it.   


  • Start with the low hanging fruit 
    There is no need to transition your whole course. Pick a concept, or two, that you know is difficult for students to grasp, and start there.
  • Use existing resources
    There is no need to record a video if one already exists that will work. Instead, search for and evaluate options to re-use. Open Educational Resources are a good place to start for not only videos but for a wide range of options.
  • Mix it up
    Make sure to create or re-use materials that rely on different modes to reach the largest number of students. Just re-explaining the concept and not switching modes isn’t multimodal. Use text, text with images, a video, a physical experiment, a simulation, a game, etc. to explain a concept. 
icons: music note, puzzle piece, image, camera, book, graph
Photo Credit

Credit: © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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See it in Practice

Following is an example of a page from a course that is explaining the Law of the Conservation of Energy using three unique examples, thus using the concept of multimodal instruction to increase student understanding. The first example is a video in which the instructor uses potato chips and a lawn mower to explain and demonstrate how energy is neither created nor destroyed, but is instead changed to become useless to us. As he obliterates the chips, he explains the concept while providing a memorable example, before building onto it. The next example is a text-only example that anyone can understand: fueling a car. And last is a series of pictures of the instructor bungee jumping to illustrate the same concept. These three examples are presented in different and engaging ways, which helps students fully understand the concept. Following is a chance for students to test their understanding (with feedback) before moving on.

The example page is effective because it helps make a fairly difficult concept understandable by demonstrating with common materials and experiences.

Three Examples: Energy is Forever, but Useful Energy Is Not

Physicists have found that in our normal lives, energy is neither created nor destroyed — it is conserved. But as energy is used, it is changed from a concentrated, useful form to a spread-out, less-useful form, eventually becoming useless to us. Let's look at several examples.

Potato Chips

Throw a bag of potato chips on the floor, and stomp on it. Keep stomping until all of the chips are reduced to dust. Then, on a really windy day, go to the top of a hill and throw the dust as high as you can.

There are still calories in that potato chip dust. If you could somehow re-bag your chip dust, you could eat it and then go about your business, fueled by the energy stored in the potato chips. In the real world, bacteria are going to get that energy, because it would take you much more energy to gather up the potato chip dust than you could ever get by eating it, even if you wanted to.

Energy itself is a little like your potato chips. Energy doesn’t disappear when you use it to do something you want, but the energy is changed to a less useful form until eventually, it is completely useless to you. If you eat the potato chips, your body will digest them and turn them into fuel that keeps your body going, which in part means generating heat to keep your body temperature at an average of 98.6°F, and then some of that heat is emitted from your body, traveling out in the form of infrared radiation, which is a form of energy. So the energy stored in the chips has been put to use and has changed from chemical energy in the chips to thermal energy that your body emits And that thermal energy gets dispersed and is not really useful anymore, although it is conserved.

Video Demonstration: Potato Chip (2:57)

Credit: Potato Chips by R. Alley © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

DR. RICHARD ALLEY: These are potato chips-- crisps, in England. The chemicals in here are a concentrated source of energy that my body could store for later, or it could burn now to power me to do things that I think I need to do, like mow the lawn. And this is gasoline. The chemicals in here are a concentrated store of energy that I can use to power my lawnmower, to help me mow the lawn.

So if I were to take my chips, dump them on the driveway, and stomp on them with my big boots, the chemicals, the energy, would still be in there, but it just wouldn't be as useful to me. Especially if I took my lawnmower—

And I spread them all over everything.

So the stuff is there, the energy is there, but I've made it no longer useful. In exactly the same way, there's now less gasoline in the mower than there used to be. I have burned it. The stuff has gone into water vapor and CO2 in the air. And the energy, a little bit of it, made noise to annoy the neighbors. But eventually, that just heated up the surroundings. And a lot of went right into heat, so if you touched the wrong piece on this mower, you would burn yourself now.

So what we see in the real world, normal times, stuff and energy are not lost or made, but they're changed from one type to another. And with energy, we tend to change it from useful types to things that are not as useful, and eventually to heat that spreads out and does no good for us. A lot of the history of humanity has been finding concentrated sources of energy and trying to get useful things out of it as we change it into useless heat that spreads around the world. That may give you an idea that we'll come back to later.

If we were using sun or wind or hydropower to run an electric mower, I'd be making a lot less noise, I'd be making a lot less heat. I'd be using the energy I bought for what I wanted, rather than wasting it.


Gas in the Car

The chemical energy in a full gas tank in your car is enough for you to drive 400 miles or so. As you burn the gas, the muffler gets hot, and you warm the air and the tires and the road a little—you are turning the gasoline’s energy into heat. You could put a little thermoelectric device in your tailpipe and generate enough electricity to run your music player, or you could blow some of the hot air through the heater to keep you warm on a cold winter day—the heat can still be useful—but you’re using lots more energy to move the car than you’ll ever get back. After you stop the car and the muffler cools off, the heat energy has been spread out into the air and is being radiated away to space — if you had a thermal camera, you could take a picture of it. A satellite can even see the heat going to space, and make a map of how warm or cold the Earth is, so there is still some use in that energy...but not much. And eventually, the energy will spread uniformly across the universe and be completely useless.

Bungee Jumping

While Dr. Alley was in New Zealand filming footage for Earth: The Operators' Manual, he took the opportunity to test another use of energy (his energy) by bungee jumping. He gained potential energy (the ability to fall down fast) by climbing up to the top of the jump. That is turned into kinetic energy (motion, the ability to collide with things) by jumping off. After the thrilling few seconds of the jump, all that energy ends up heating the surroundings a bit and is no longer useful.

bungee jumping
Photo Credit

Credit: Bungee Jumping © R. Alley. Used with permission. 

The key piece of knowledge to take away from these three examples of how energy is changed from a useful to a non-useful form is: if you want to keep doing things, you need new sources of concentrated energy. That’s what this course is about!


Not everyone has a big personality like the instructor in the example, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t create a video that showcases your best attributes and personality. If you decide to create a video, keep the following in mind as you plan:

  1. Have a clear instructional purpose
  2. Put together a plan or storyboard
  3. Limit the length of the video to 3-5 minutes
  4. Make sure that materials in the video are yours, public domain, or Open Ed Resource
  5. Consider shelf life (for higher production value videos)
  6. Consider the budget
  7. Consider standard production checklist items
  8. Consider how to license the video
  9. Consider privacy, both yours and others’, before recording
  10. Allow time for captioning and transcription


The R Shiny Parametric Hypothesis Testing tool, shown above, is used in METEO 815 to help the students understand the complicated statistical mathematics behind hypothesis formation and testing. The lesson materials provide the mathematical equations used for hypothesis testing and include a few static images to help illustrate the process. The use of the R Shiny tool takes the lesson to another level by providing students the ability to manipulate several different parameters involved in the hypothesis test and to visualize how those parameters affect the decision to accept or reject a null hypothesis.

The R Shiny Number of Samples tool, shown above, is used in METEO 815 to help students visualize the relationship of basic statistical concepts like sample size, frequency, range, and mean. The student can adjust the number of samples used to create the histogram. The students should notice that as the number of samples increases, the mean estimate moves closer to the true mean. The students should also see that as the sample size increases, the range estimate is more likely to increase because, as we sample more, we increase the likelihood of sampling the extreme part of the population (the tails of the frequency histogram).



  • When designing R Shiny apps, make sure they meet accessibility requirements.




  • Ainsworth, S. (2008). The educational value of multiple-representations when learning complex scientific concepts. In J.K. Gilbert, M. Reiner, & M. Nakleh (Eds.), Visualization: Theory and practice in science education (pp. 191-208). Springer. 
  • Picciano, A. G. (2009). Blending with purpose: The multimodal model. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, 13(1), 7-18. doi:10.24059/olj.v13i1.1673 
  • Tobin, R., & Tippett, C. D. (2014). Possibilities and potential barriers: Learning to plan for differentiated instruction in elementary science. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 12(2), 423-443. doi:10.1007/s10763-013-9414-z