Research corner

`Do illustrations help or harm metacomprehension accuracy?' by Jaeger, A J and Wiley, J

Learning and Instruction, 34: 58-73, December 2014 (Elsevier)

You've worked on a handout for ages, breaking up reams of text with fun, topical pictures to make it engaging. But beware: those pictures may be giving students an inflated sense of their own abilities.

Academics from the University of Chicago in the US conducted two experiments designed to test the effects of illustrations on students' metacomprehension accuracy - or, in other words, their ability to predict their own achievement in a certain subject.

They found that students who read a text with decorative images were not as accurate in pinpointing their comprehension of a topic as peers who had read a text with conceptual images or no images at all.

The researchers discuss why students might have this reaction to such images: one possible answer is that they have a "heuristic belief that multimedia improves comprehension". Another possibility is that students have "been `seduced' into relying too much on images as a source for their comprehension judgements".

"Although images or illustrations may be included alongside text with the best of intentions," the academics write, "textbooks often present students with a variety of images that mix important and unimportant ideas, which can be difficult for students to distinguish between."

So next time you're designing your teaching resources, think about the pictures you are using and why.

As the authors put it: "The design elements that give online learning materials high production value may in fact be harmful to the self-regulated learning processes that students need to deploy in online contexts".

Sarah Cunnane

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