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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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