We are now in the age of visual information where visual content plays a vital role in every part of life. Including visuals in your learning materials helps to summarise content into smaller and easier to process ‘chunks’. By selecting the right visuals, they offer more comprehensibility than text-based or audio explanations. Also, students can effortlessly relate emotions with visuals. This can make learning content more impactful and memorable.
So, what is the science behind why visuals can enhance learning?
Visuals stick in long-term memory. The human mind stores information into both short-term and long-term memory, however the former is often limited and can be influenced by several factors. Using visuals can help students to make sense of learning content and direct attention to key facts. One of the easiest ways to ensure that learners store information in their long-term memory is to pair concepts with meaningful images, increasing the possibilities that the learners will remember the material.
According to Dr Lynell Burmark, an education consultant at Stanford University who writes and speaks about visual literacy: “…unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about seven bits of information. Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched.”
You can also learn more about how to drive learner engagement with high impact video strategies, as well as how to use the university’s lecture/personal capture service , ReView here:
Images improve comprehension. Visuals can stimulate imagination on a cognitive level, enabling learners to process information Studies have found that visuals can improve learning by up to 400%. According to research conducted at Stanford University, when words and visual elements are closely entwined, we create something new and we augment our communal intelligence. Visual language has the potential for increasing ‘human bandwidth’ – the capacity to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesise large amounts of new information.
Trigger Emotions. Visuals can help users engage with the content, and such emotional reactions influence information retention. Visual memory is encoded in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, the same place where emotions are processed. This means that visual stimuli and emotional responses are easily linked, and together the two form memories. As academics we can tap into this, for example, using visual metaphors to help express emotions to trigger a similar emotional response in students.
Motivate learners. Around 40% of learners respond better to visual information than text alone. Simply seeing a picture allows users to recreate the experience in their mind.
Using appropriate visuals. It is important to note that graphics can also negatively impact learning if they are used inappropriately. Decorative graphics, stock images with watermarks, generic graphics, pixelated and badly sized images can all detract from the impactful purpose you are trying to achieve. Also, poorly designed visuals can also have a negative impact on inclusivity/accessibility.
Unlike text, pictures have the power to enrich communication and stimulate an emotional response. To utilise visuals in a way that will reinforce course material and facilitate learning, it is necessary to use images that:
- Represent actual objects, people, or places.
- Simplify complex or abstract ideas.
- Bridge already learned materials with the unfamiliar.
Always ensure that images have a clear value, otherwise, they are distractions at best and, at worst, give learners the wrong impression. This means omitting anything that does not directly support learning goals.
Inclusive media. When adding image-based media to your learning materials, it is important to ensure that they have appropriate text alternatives or descriptions. Having a description will ensure that they are accessible to everyone. Alternative text and captions are the most commonly used methods to describe image-based media.