Presenting chronology as a virtual highway, with slip roads and turn-offs that provide additional information as you travel, can significantly improve pupils' ability to understand history.
"For centuries, people have visualised time and chronology as linear," academics have written in the Computers amp; Education journal. "A concern, however, is that ... the user cannot see or explore the continuity and interconnectivity of events" across different subject areas.
An alternative method, the academics suggest, would be to create a virtual road, along which different historical events can be seen in relation to one another. As pupils progress down the virtual road, they pass pictures, which they can click on for additional information.
Several timelines can be viewed simultaneously on a single road. For example, images from political history might appear in the centre of the road, with history of art to the left and history of psychology to the right.
They created such a chronological road and presented it to a group of students at Middlesex University. Fourteen students were given the virtual timeline to explore, while 13 were given more traditional timelines. After two weeks, participants returned for a series of tests. These examined how well they had learnt the timelines, but also how well they were able to relate different subject-area timelines to one another.
Those students who had been learning from the virtual road significantly outperformed those using the traditional timelines. They performed particularly well on tasks that tested their ability to relate events occurring across different timelines.
"The most important factor that helped them achieve high scores ... was their ability to connect events with each other - to see a structure and a point of reference," the academics said. The control group, meanwhile, struggled to visualise different timelines simultaneously.
The method would require enthusiasm from teachers, the researchers emphasised. But it would also allow pupils to think about the relationships between events, and to examine cause and effect. "In terms of history teaching, the benefit is that it can potentially provide a broader view of history and chronology than conventional learning," they said.
Korallo, L. Foreman, N. Boyd-Davis, S. Moar, M and Coulson, M. "Can multiple spatial virtual timelines convey the relatedness of chronological knowledge across parallel domains?" (February 2012). Computers amp; Education, volume 58, issue 2. www.journals.elsevier.comcomputers-and-education
Liliya Korallo, Middlesex University.