Using visual aids to help revision is a tried-and-tested formula. It’s accepted wisdom among teachers that pictures, diagrams, mind maps and even different coloured pens are vital tools for teaching and revision.
There’s impressive research literature on the role of visual aids, including American psychologist Richard Mayer’s influential "Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning", which proposes that “people learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone”.
But it’s not enough to just plaster everything with pretty pictures and assume that it will help children to revise. So what works? And what doesn’t?
Visual aids alone might not be enough
The reason why visual aids work for revision is down to how we are wired.
That’s not to say text is not important. The key concept here is known as "dual coding", presenting information in written and visual formats. Megan Smith, associate professor at Rhode Island College in the US, says there are solid studies showing that consuming information in this way boosts learning.
“If you have two different ways of remembering information, visualisation and text, then that's going to give you two pathways to help you remember,” she tells me.
An example of this in action in the classroom is as follows: students would look at teaching materials, comparing images to the accompanying words. They would then design their own images based on the information they need to learn, manipulating the information into various different representations. So, for example, the human respiratory system could be shown as a flow diagram, an annotated illustration of the upper half of the human body and a cartoon. Eventually, Smith says, the aim would be for students to be able to draw these visuals from memory.
She says that not only does this approach help students to make sense of concepts by creating a number of different ways to represent the same information, it also encourages a crucial aspect of learning called retrieval processing – getting the facts back out of the brain again at a later date, such as during a test.
Get the most from concept mapping
Research shows that dual coding works, but revision isn't as simple as just scribbling down an image with some multi-coloured pens and hoping for the best. For example, concept mapping (also known as mind mapping or spider diagrams) is a popular teaching and revision technique where students draw "bubbles" containing related concepts, then add connecting lines and phrases that link them together. But for these to work well, they need to be handled correctly.
The best-known studies of the benefits of concept mapping come from education researchers Janell Blunt and Jeff Karpicke. Splitting students into two groups, the researchers asked one set to revise a textbook and create concept maps, keeping the text open in front of them.
The other group were asked to read the material then put the books away and test themselves on it – a technique more formally known as retrieval practice. When examined a week later, these self-testers performed significantly better than the concept mappers, even if the final test involved drawing a concept map. Yet when quizzed, most students said they thought that drawing maps from their textbook would be the more effective revision tool.
“The better way to do it is to put the materials away and use drawing maps as a way to practise bringing information to mind,” says Smith. “It's not so much about the visualisation per se, but about the processing that occurs. Just looking at a map isn't going to be as good as bringing the information to mind and producing it.”
Reassuringly, the artistic merits of that map are not overly important. That’s because the visual aids that really count are not on the paper, but in the brain.
“Mental images are the most important type of visual,” says Robert Logie, professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Externalising these pictures by drawing them can help with consolidation, he explains, but it’s the act of generating images in the mind that is most important.
“If you think about what's needed to generate an image, you have to understand the material that is being presented in order to generate a picture that represents the information. The whole process actually forces a student to really understand the information, otherwise you can't generate an image in the first place.” Or, in other words, learn it.
Using the right kind of images
Interestingly, that process of creating mental images can be knocked off course and neutered by a selection of the "wrong" visual aids. The biggest culprits here are textbook and resource authors, and teachers with a taste for "engaging" Powerpoint presentations.
Professor John Dunlosky, a psychologist at Kent State University in Ohio, warns against being distracted by “seductive details”, which detract from learning rather than enhance it. The danger is that textbooks and teachers use images designed to appeal to the reader or audience, rather than to boost learning.
“You’ll be reading a psychology textbook and learning about reinforcement, and to illustrate it they’ve used a cute dog – for example, someone is teaching the dog to do a trick,” he says. “But instead of thinking about how reinforcement is supposed to work, you start thinking about dogs instead.”
He explains that if the visual aids portray the processes that the text or a teacher is describing then they can enhance learning that content. But flashy animations or videos, with too much "going on", can lead to so-called ‘cognitive overload’.
“Having visual animations along with spoken word or subtitles can be really good,” says Smith, “but if you’re trying to process way too much information in a meaningful way it can actually harm learning.”
How to avoid information overload
Smith describes some useful tips for beating brain overload in a recent blog post for the Learning Scientists. These include slowing down the presentation of words and pictures, or breaking it down into chunks. She also suggests avoiding using the same words in images and in text – counter-intuitively, this actually takes more brainpower to process than different words. Another big no-no are additional distractions such as music or irrelevant animations.
Whether preparing students for an exam or just simply getting them to understand information in a normal lesson – at whatever phase of their education – pictures can be powerful. Smith urges teachers to also remember that this is also an effective option if you want to make lessons enjoyable.
“Teachers should be encouraging students to create fun ways to practise retrieval in the classroom and at home,” she says. “They can be creating concept maps from memory, having them identify relationships with pictures, and drawing diagrams. All of that's going to be really helpful.”
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