In comparison, most of us have had no training in visual literacy.
We think and communicate with words rather than visuals. So it will
take some time and effort to begin to think visually as you plan
your training materials.
1. Beyond the pumpkin slide.
You are rushing to put together the slides for your pilot class on
the new copier features for a sales meeting. As you ponder all of
the slides of text, you realize that Halloween is approaching. You
quickly do a clip art search and find some great jack o' lanterns
to add to your slides. While they do make your slides look more
enticing, what effect will they have on learning?
"Pumpkin graphics" is my terminology for "decorative" visuals. They
are intended to add visual interest or humor to the material but do
not enhance the instructional message. Figure 2 shows a slide that includes an attractive photograph
that loosely relates to the topic, but that does not serve any
2. Decorative visuals defeat learning.
We have evidence showing that decorative visuals, even visuals
related to the topic, can depress learning. Richard Mayer and his
colleagues evaluated learning from two lessons on how lightning
A basic version included text and visuals that illustrated the
process of lightning formation. A spiced up version added some
interesting visuals and discussion about lightning. For example a
visual of an airplane struck by lightning was accompanied by a
brief description of what happens to airplanes in the presence of
lightning. Several interesting visuals of this type were added.
Which version do you think led to more successful learning?
Whether presented as a paper-based version or via computer, the
basic versions that omitted the interesting visuals led to better
learning. In fact learners who received the basic version scored
105 percent better on the problem-solving test than those who
received the extended lesson.
3. Plan explanatory visuals.
If decorative visuals don't help, what kind of visuals should you
use? Plan visuals that illustrate your content relationships. For
Figure 3, you can see a graphic designed to illustrate the
ideas expressed in the text. The text is communicating the movement
and conditions of movement of gift certificates, from the safe, to
the counter, to the customer. A visual that reflects that basic
idea is more helpful than the decorative visual used in Figure 2.
4. Explain your visuals effectively.
Once you have a visual representation, you will usually need to
explain it with words presented in text, audio, or both. It's a
common misconception that learning has more success with two
sensory modalities rather than just one. Therefore, presenting
words along with both text and audio would seem to be a better
approach than presenting them with either one alone.
However, research that compared learning from visuals explained by
text sentences, audio sentences, or text plus audio of that text,
found that audio alone led to the best outcomes, followed by text
The least successful learning resulted from text and audio
repetition of that text. In 12 experiments summarized by Richard
Mayer and colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbara,
learning was more successful with words presented in a single mode
- not both. Take a look at Figure 4 to see how an explanatory visual with limited on-slide
text is most effectively explained with audio narration.
For situations in which you cannot use audio narration, display
limited amounts of text in close proximity to the visual. Call-outs
containing text, layered with visuals, represent an effective way
to closely integrate text and visuals.
Who benefits from visuals?
One of the common myths in the training field is the idea that some
learners are "visual" while others are "auditory." In reality, all
learners who are new to a content area benefit from a relevant
visual. However, learners who are already experienced in a domain
do not gain much from visuals added to words.
Why? Imagine that you have worked with bicycle pumps and are
familiar with them. As you read a text description of how the pump
works, your brain can readily visualize the words. In other words,
you are able to generate your own visual representation as a result
of your prior knowledge. In contrast, the novice does not know
enough about bicycle pumps to form her own images.
Several experiments have shown that visuals that benefit novices
don't help experts. Brewer and his colleagues compared
comprehension of judicial instructions presented with words alone
(audio instructions) with words and visuals (audio-visual
instructions). Judicial instructions are the verbal summaries
judges give to the jury about the legal aspects the jury should
consider when debating the case.
The experiment included two types of mock juries: one made up of
typical citizens and a second composed of law students. The
judicial instructions consisted of approximately 10 minutes of a
judge's auditory instructions to the jury for a self-defense trial.
The visual version added a flow chart and explanatory visuals that
corresponded to the judge's explanations. After hearing, or hearing
and viewing, the instructions, all jurors were tested with a
self-defense scenario. The scores of novice jurors (who used the
audio-visual version), but not legal students, were much better. In
fact, novice jurors given visuals reached the same comprehension
levels as law students.
Graphics boost learning.
What evidence do we have that visuals can improve learning? Mayer
et al have run many experiments that compared learning from a
lesson delivered entirely with words to learning from the same
lesson that added visuals to the words.
After completing the lesson, university students took a
problem-solving test. In all cases, the lesson with visuals led to
better learning, with a median effect size of approximately 1.4,
which is a strong effect.