Why use visuals?

Along with the other half a dozen books I am working my way through, I am coming to the end of Ruth Clarke and Chopete Lyons’ book on Graphics for Learning. My fascination for this sort of thing is borne out of admiration for my good friend, Oliver Caviglioli’s work (if you haven’t seen this, you’re missing out). For information, in this post I will be using graphics and visuals synonymously.
In their book, Clarke and Lyons spend a chapter (4) exploring how learning happens and how graphics can be effective in supporting this. Here is a graphic they use to show human cognitive architecture which aligns with Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model.


They note that because of the importance of long term memory, those with little domain knowledge (novices) suffer when information is not presented effectively to them, as their working memory (WM) becomes overloaded. Using visuals with auditory information during instruction can work to reduce this burden on WM however, as two pathways into WM are distinctly separate – one visual and one auditory.

Essentially, the working memory is like a bottle neck. If we pour too much into the bottle neck, much is lost… now imagine having two bottle necks into the same bottle, we’d keep much more information (yes a very simplistic way of looking at it). Better still, imagine if the same information went in both visually and auditory… this is what Paivio calls dual coding – a really useful approach to providing new information to learners.

Dual coding in action?
Using graphics benefits learners in numerable ways, not just the above. Here I will discuss some of the reasons outlined by Clarke and Lyons:

1. Graphics help to direct attention

They suggest that almost any ‘visual will attract attention’. Attention is key to learning anything new, but in a typical classroom, in addition to the information being taught, there are other stimuli which can distract learners. Having a visual for learners can provide the focus of attention, however, they should be used with caution:

  • The visual should not be irrelevant to what information is being shared (random clip art images should be avoided).
  • The visual, if complex, should also have signals to direct attention to component parts such as small circles or arrows.
  • Simple visuals are better for more novice learners.


2. Graphics help to activate prior knowledge

Learners ‘know stuff’ already, but it will be in the abyss of long term memory and it is important for us to draw it (no pun intended) into the working memory in order to link new knowledge. Clarke and Lyons tell us that ‘a visual provided before the main lesson content can help to build an effective base knowledge structure. This skeleton structure provides a frame on which the learner can attach additional lesson details.’ This is corroborated by Marzano’s work on classroom based instruction, whereby non-linguistic teaching methods such as graphic organisers have a startling effect on achievement (0.75 Ave. ES)

In spite of this, a graphic that activates inappropriate prior knowledge will depress learning according to Clarke and Lyons, so there is a need to ensure clarity and order with the graphic that is used.


3. Graphics help to manage mental load

‘Since working memory is the site of active processing, good instructional materials must preserve its limited capacity for learning.’ I have blogged before about the use of storyboards to assist with delivery of new information. This is one example of how to manage the mental load. Simple visuals (line drawings) are said to be better than more complex visuals. For instance, when drawing the heart, for novice learners it would help to draw a simple boxed line drawing as opposed to a cross section of the heart, which is often seen. As learners become more competent with the content, visuals can increase in complexity.


4. Graphics help to build mental models

Where Clarke and Lyons refer to mental models, they basically mean ‘schema’, or patterns of knowledge and skills in the long term memory. The more expert one becomes, the more complex and organised our mental models become. We learn by linking new information to existing mental models and in using graphics, abstract information can be made more clear with how new information links to current knowledge.


5. Graphics help with transfer

Clarke and Lyons argue that with all the knowledge in the world, unless we can retrieve it and bring it back to WM, we won’t be able to transfer it to alternative situations. They distinguish between near and far-transfer in their book, both requiring different types of graphic to maximise the type of transfer.

Near-transfer is the type of thing we will do more frequently, like a following a process for sending an email – the difference being that there will be different content to include.


Far-transfer requires the use of concrete and abstract examples – Clarke and Lyons inform us that in developing far-transfer, ‘graphic illustrations that build mental models, use varied context, transition from concrete to abstract, and provide a work context for immersive learning environments’. I feel that this warrants an entirely separate blog post, so will look at this further in the new year.


6. Graphics can optimise motivation

Clarke and Lyons highlight motivation as the key to effective learning and that visuals can play a huge role in motivating learners. They recommend using visuals that help learners see the relevance and value in the learning and trigger interest for learners. It is important to note that while visuals can interest learners in the learning material, the ‘edutainment’ that often comes with instruction can actually impede learning (guilty of this your honour). So try to avoid eye candy and instead focus on relevant graphics.

In addition to this, a recent post by Greg Ashman caught my eye, arguing that by reducing cognitive load, we increase the motivation of our learners. If we look back at the purpose of using the visual pathway to WM – to reduce load, then we find additional benefits to using graphics.


So that’s it, six reasons why we should consider using more visuals in our instruction. If you do use them though, please heed the advice of Clarke and Lyons.



9 thoughts on “Why use visuals?

  1. Presume you’ve read Myers book on Multimedia signalling process, etc? Think you cited it once before. I just posted you a question on Twitter. I wonder whether ‘reducing cognitive load’ is becoming a bypass to ‘make it easier’. My subject requires extensive text and breaking it down into graphics and spacing is helpful, sure, but risks turning serious discourse into an Idiot’s Guide. There need be a balance somwhere between interacting with extensive knowledge deeper and using these ‘instructional’ principles for the basics. Easier in some subjects than others.

    Plus, once my Access students heard me explain what cognitive load was, it was all I heard from them for weeks. ‘Oh, I’ve got a right cognitive load on today.’ There’s a danger akin to learning styles in there somehow in a way that I, frankly, can’t be ersed to consider any further.

    1. Thanks for the comment, H.

      ‘There need be a balance somwhere between interacting with extensive knowledge deeper and using these ‘instructional’ principles for the basics. Easier in some subjects than others.’

      This statement answers your problem. I have also written about how this sort of thing can actually impede the learning for experts – the expertise reversal effect. For novice learners (and only you can judge what one of those is in your context), we want to reduce the extraneous cognitive load (I’ve also briefly discussed the three types of cognitive load – might do another on this come to think of it) and focus on increasing germane load. So in essence, we’re not trying to make it easier, I’d prefer, more efficient.

      So in summary, as we are dealing with mainly novices in an FE setting, I believe it is worth having an understanding of cog.load. It has far more of an empirical research base than the dreaded learning styles and it offers us the opportunity to reflect on the way we deliver information to learners during the instructional process.

      1. What I mean by LSs is that students use them as a kind of bypass clause: ‘I didn’t do so well in that lesson because there wasn’t enough visual data’, etc. Haven’t you heard that kind of comment? ‘I learn best by…blah…’

        I’m not disputing the research for load, but imagine that some students, once they learn of the notion of it, can equally pull up the drawbridge to engagement: ‘enough is enough today. I’m loaded.’ (this, potentially, before ever approaching real textual analysis, which requires much more breadth and scope of content for it to demonstrate deeper understanding).

        I’m whittling on…good work.

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