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As I grapple with research trying to improve my instructional presentations, I have learned about Richard Mayer’s assertion that people learn better with words and graphics than just words alone. As a result, I have been investigating information about the role of graphics in learning. One natural extension of the reading that I have done thus far is Graphics for Learning by Clark and Lyons. Ruth Colvin Clark co-authored e-Learning with Richard Mayer.

The authors cite evidence that lessons with graphics that were appealing, yet did not support the learning objectives, hurt performance on tests. Graphics should be included with an eye to the instructional goal. In Graphics for Learning, the authors classify graphics by their communication functions:

  • Decorative
  • Representational
  • Mnemonic
  • Organizational
  • Relational
  • Transformational
  • Interpretive

Decorative graphics are, at best, tangentially related to the learning goals. At worst they have no relation. They may be added for aesthetic reasons or they may be intended to be humorous or motivating. The authors refer to decorative graphics as eye-candy and research shows that they can actually interfere with learning.

Eye candy does nothing to promote learning

Representative graphics are realistic depictions of something related to the learning objectives. Examples given by Clark and Lyons include screen captures or images of equipment.

Representative graphic of Ferdinand and Isabella

Mnemonic images can be used to help learners remember information. The authors regard these as powerful tools.

This depiction of a race car helps learning Morse Code for "R"

The next four types of graphics are referred to as explanatory graphics. They help learners construct mental models. They show relationships more effectively than words alone.

Organizational graphics show qualitative relations between content in a lesson. These would include most mind maps, organizational charts, tree diagrams, etc.

Organizational Graphic

Relational graphics illustrate quantitative relations between variables. Examples of relational graphics include line graphs, bar graphs, pie charts etc. Any graphic output from a spreadsheet program would be relational.

This graphic shows the relationship between 3 variables

Transformational graphics are used to show changes over time or space. These could include flow charts, step by step procedures, timelines, or animated graphics depicting changes. Arrows are a common characteristic in transformational graphics.

Illustration of process of photosynthesis (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Interpretive Graphics show more abstract constructs such as a theory. They can also include cause and effect models.

Graphic illustrating impact of constant speed of light in Einstein's Theory of Relativity: If speed of light is constant, then time must slow down for the person on cart (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Now that I have learned these distinctions among graphics, I examine those in my presentations and multimedia in a different way. It is not so important that we sort our graphics into neat categories, but it this serves as a way to think about our use of graphics. Clearly, the decorative graphics are best minimized. While representative graphics support learning, they do not help learners construct mental models as effectively as the four explanatory types.

In Multimedia Learning by Richard Mayer, the author surveyed the function of graphics in math and science texts and found that the overwhelming majority were either decorative or representational. Only a small percentage were explanatory.

We need to examine our work and consider the communication goal our graphics fulfill. I know that I need to find a way to integrate more explanatory graphics. These are more difficult to create than finding a CC licensed image and labeling it. I also wonder if some of the representational graphics that I use truly support my learning objectives. For example, does it matter what Ferdinand and Isabella looked like?

Clark and Lyons go further in exploring research regarding graphics for learning. They also explore the psychological function of graphics. This helps determine how to make our graphics more effective in meeting learning objectives. I plan to explore more of their ideas in future posts. Meanwhile, if you consider their ideas valuable, consider reading more work of their work:

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My presentation design has been greatly influenced by Nancy Duarte’s book slide:ology and Garr Reynolds, the author of Presentation Zen. I have integrated their ideas in both my conferences and instructional presentations. Their advice has dramatically changed my practice from bullet points to slides that are more graphically oriented with much less text.

Both Duarte’ and Reynolds are focused on business presentations, whereas I am interested in instructional presentations. Reynolds talks about the importance of graphics as mnemonic devices that help retention of ideas. I wonder how these ideas would apply to an instructional presentation and how research should inform my practice. Having applied their ideas, I know my presentations look a lot better. I know the students enjoy them more, but I am not sure that the instruction is more effective.

In the first chapter of Presentation Zen, Reynolds quotes University of New South Wales Professor John Sweller saying, “The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched.” He discusses this point in some detail in this blog post. He also quotes Professor Richard Mayer, author of Multimedia Learning. These have been the starting points of my inquiry.

I have found several papers authored or coauthored by Mayer. I have since purchased a copy of Mayer’s Multimedia Learning and Efficiency in Learning coauthored by Clark, Nguyen, and Sweller.

Mayer creates a cognitive model of the standard text bullet point presentation as shown below.

Illustration based upon Mayer’s Multimedia Learning p. 124

Mayer contends that using both spoken and written text in a presentation overloads the visual channel and interferes with the processing of the picture. My personal experience is that trying to listen to a speaker and read the printed word on a slide is very distracting. Mayer refers to this a the redundancy principle:

…eliminating redundancy is a useful way to reduce cognitive load. We refer to this result as a redundancy effect: Students understand a multimedia presentation better when words are presented as narration rather than as narration and on-screen text.  (Mayer & Moreno 2003)

Mayer asserts that the best approach is to use spoken words directed toward the auditory channel and pictures and animations for the visual channel.

Illustration based upon Mayer’s Multimedia Learning p. 124

This approach provides two sources of sensory processing without overloading either channel. Mayer refers the superiority of of simultaneously using words and pictures than just words as the multimedia principle (Mayer 2009 p. 223). More specifically, he speaks of a modality principle asserting that, “People learn more deeply from pictures and spoken words than from pictures and printed words” (Mayer 2009 p. 200). Using spoken words with pictures avoids the redundancy effect.

This is a rudimentary description of part of the theory behind some of the best selling books on presenting. I am reading Mayer’s Multimedia Learning and look forward to reflecting upon my instructional presentations. His book outlines eleven principles which, at first glance, are likely to help optimize my practice.

The work of Duarte and Reynolds have been a great starting point and have helped me hone my craft. I believe that classroom practitioners can benefit by digging deeper and exploring into this area of research. I plan to share my thoughts as I read more. I look forward to your thoughts.

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