Face or No Face? The Image Principle

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oddsock/82545283 (labelled for reuse, Creative Commons) 

Recently Zoom announced a new feature: teachers can use their PowerPoint or Keynote slides as a background when they teach (or make videos) via Zoom. I talked with several teachers who are excited about this feature, and it made me wonder about an overall question: in an instructional video, is it a good idea if students can see the teacher’s face? Just about every video conference/recording platform (Loom, Zoom, Screencastify, etc.)  makes it possible to put a little box or window into a video to show the teacher’s “talking head.” But does seeing the teacher talking help make the video or video learning experience more effective? 

I did a little digging and quickly ran into the idea of the “Image Principle.” This principle states that “including an image of an instructor’s ‘talking head’ during a multimedia presentation doesn’t necessarily improve learning outcomes.” (Mayer, 2001). But that phrase “doesn’t necessarily improve learning” doesn’t necessarily help us much! As teachers, how should we decide whether to include our face in a video or not? 

One useful way to think about this might be to use Cognitive Load theory. Our working memory (where we do our conscious, effortful thinking) can only handle so many tasks at once. Mayer points out that one of our goals in our videos should be to help students use their limited working memory space in ways that help them learn – to help them manage cognitive load. This means that we want to reduce “extraneous” load (anything that might cause students to think about things that aren’t relevant to what they are trying to learn) and include elements that help with “germane load” (cognitive tasks that help students thinking about what they should be thinking about in order to learn). 

So the image principle might change our question: instead of “Should I include my face or not in a video?” a better question might be “When is seeing my face relevant or helpful to the thinking students need to do?” Most of the time, students probably don’t need to see us during a video: usually we want them thinking about the words or images in the video and seeing our face might be extraneous load. But sometimes seeing a teacher’s face might be germane: if we are trying to establish a relationship in an early video and get students thinking about who we are as a teacher (and maybe who they are as a student), seeing our talking head might be useful. Or maybe we want to emphasize a specific point using our hands or other nonverbal expressions that are only possible with our face. It’s possible that occasionally including our face in a video could be used for emphasizing a vital issue, or an emotional connection with the material, or to get students’ selective attention focused on a specific point. 

I’ve heard and read advice for teachers similar to “always include your face in a video because it helps the students focus on your words.” Like most things in education, the reality is more complicated than these simple rules and advice imply. 


Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2011) “Cognitive load theory in practice: Examples for the classroom” https://www.cese.nsw.gov.au//images/stories/PDF/Cognitive_load_theory_practice_guide_AA.pdf 

Christodoulou (2020 “What does the research say about designing video lessons?” blog posted on 30-04-2020, https://daisychristodoulou.com/2020/04/what-does-the-research-say-about-designing-video-lessons/ 

Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Summary: https://ctl.wiley.com/principles-of-multimedia-learning/ 

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