Graphics to support learning

This is one of a number of posts exploring multimedia learning. I have been reading research on this topic with an eye toward improving my presentations and other multimedia instructional material. Here are earlier posts in order of creation:

In my previous post, I  outlined Clark and Lyons’ categorization of the communication roles of graphics in their book Graphics for Learning:

This graphic activates prior knowledge for those who read the earlier blog post.

Decorative graphics are to be avoided as they don’t support learning and can actually decrease performance. The explanatory graphics help learners construct mental models. All graphics should be aligned with learning objectives.

The authors continue their discussion of graphics by examining their psychological roles in facilitating learning:

  • Support Attention
  • Activate of Build Prior Knowledge
  • Minimize Cognitive Load
  • Build Mental Models
  • Support Learning Transfer
  • Support Motivation

Support Attention

Graphics that support attention help the learner help focus on what is important. The authors draw upon parallels in text: bold, italics, colors, headings, bullets, etc. as examples of effective in directing attention. Such cues, in text or graphics, are particularly effective when the material is more complex. Their suggestions come down to two of Mayer’s principles:

  • Signaling: “People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of essential material are added.”
  • Contiguity: “Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.”

There are many ways to support users using signaling in graphics including placement on the page, color, contrast, and graphic elements such as circles or arrows.

This graphic signals important content in three ways: It dims extraneous content, enlarges the relevant material and uses a red circle to highlight a specific element.

Contiguity makes it easier for learners to focus on important material because it puts text close to the graphic:

The top triangle graphic applies the principle of contiguity

Call outs are another example of applying contiguity to a graphic.

This image demonstrates use of callouts that apply the contiguity principle (Credit NASA)

Finally the authors re-emphasize the importance of eliminating decorative graphics and advise caution with animations.

Activate or Build Prior Knowledge

People learn better if they can relate new content to their existing knowledge. Learning outcomes are improved when we activate prior knowledge. Those without significant prior knowledge can benefit from building background knowledge that applies to the content to be learned.

One way to activate or build prior knowledge is to provide an advanced organizer for the lesson. An advanced organizer gives the learner an overview of what they will be learning making it easier to integrate the details that follow.

The first graphic in this blog post activates prior knowledge for those who read my previous blogpost by reviewing the communication role of graphics–information that appears again in this posts and is related to the new content. A lesson that develops the ideas of a food web or trophic levels (i.e. primary and secondary consumers) would benefit learners by activating their prior knowledge about food chains.

This graphic activates knowledge about food chains before learning more complex food webs.

Comparative advanced organizers are recommended for individuals without significant prior knowledge about a topic.

This graphic of a narrowing in a pipe is used to help understand an electronic resistor.

They caution that one should implement graphics that activate appropriate prior knowledge and to avoid graphics that activate the wrong or irrelevant prior knowledge.

Minimize Cognitive Load

Cognitive load can be reduced in many cases by simply using graphics in place or in addition to text. For instance a photograph of installing RAM is probably has a lighter cognitive load than a verbal description.

Credit: Flickr user lymang

A line diagram could further reduce the cognitive load by excluding extraneous visual content. A line drawing is simpler than an actual photograph; hence, reducing cognitive load.

Credit lire.net

Build Mental Models

Graphics that help learners build mental models brings us back to the beginning of this post and to the material of my previous discussion about the communicative role of graphics. Explanatory graphics, organizational, relational, transformational, and interpretive, better support building mental models than decorative, representative, and mnemonic graphics.

Graphic organizers like that found at the beginning of this post are found to be more effective in promoting learning than text, even when the text uses signaling such as bold and italics. It has also been demonstrated to be more effective than outlines. Tables and matrices can also  serve as organizational graphics.

Charts and graphs function as relational graphics. The text discusses different kinds of charts and graphs and when each is most effective. That will be the subject of another post in the future.

One interesting point made by the text about transformational graphics. those that show changes over time or space, is that static depictions teach as well as animated ones.

Support Learning Transfer

The author discuss two kinds of transfer: near and far. Ability to preform simple tasks that are done the same way each time are termed near transfer. Those that require the learner to adapt to a unique situation each time to succeed at a task are called far transfer.

Near transfer would apply to simple and routine tasks such as launching a word processor and saving the file. In this case realistic representative graphics are important. In the case of software, a screen capture would serve well. The graphic below depicting changing copyright settings on a Flickr pages is a representative  graphic It also reduces cognitive load by signaling while still providing context which is also valuable in near term transfer.

This graphic illustrates how to find open licensed material using Google's search. In the advance search click Date, usage rights,…

Far transfer success requires building mental models which are best created by explanatory graphics. These graphics can facilitate understanding by making abstract ideas more concrete such as a number line.

They can show a process with a transformational graphic:

Transformational graphic (Credit http://science-capt.wikispaces.com/ )

Far transfer is also supported by giving a number of examples in different contexts applying the same skill. Someone wanting to demonstrate the design concept of contrast could provide examples of contrast in color, size, typography, etc.

Support motivation

Motivation varies with learners. Clark and Lyons counsel avoiding graphics that use emotional interest to motivate. They recommend adding cognitive interest by using familiar and easy to understand materials. Graphics that depict relevance is also important. No matter what one’s personal interest materials that are coherent, familiar, and easy to grasp are motivating to all learners.

Conclusions

Again, having learned more about how graphics can better support learning, I have a more critical eye regarding graphics in presentations. As a side product, I have also learned more about learning research in general.

Part of the problem becomes how to create some of these graphics. The explanatory graphics are complex and do not often lend themselves to simple photographs. Clearly, to create quality learning graphics requires the proper tools and techniques. I plan to explore this area in the near future.

It is time to re-examine my presentations and improve them with more effective use of graphics. More importantly, I am increasing my focus on how all all elements–graphics, text, audio, video, etc. support learning objectives. Clark and Lyons go further in exploring effective ways to plan for the use of graphics in learning.

Tags: , , , ,