William Blake was a visionary poet. As a four-year-old he claimed to have seen God at his window and angels walking around the fields of London. As an adult visions continued to come to Blake, notably when he claimed to see the ‘world in a grain of sand / And a Heaven in a wild flower’. Blake’s visions inspired his poetic vision, particularly his illustrated children’s books, Songs of Innocence and Experience. In these deceptively child-like poems, Blake saw through the systems of corruption behind social injustice and spoke for the poor and the weak at the margins of an increasingly mechanised world.
But there is another sense in which Blake can be considered visionary – in his innovative etched relief printing technique, which combined powerful words with vivid images. Whilst many are familiar with lines from London, The Chimney sweep and The Garden of Love, less have probably seen the accompanying illustrations. Those who have not contemplated the totality of Blake’s inked copperplates, painstakingly coloured by hand, have not really experienced the wholeness of his work. For in his beautiful marriage of poetry and art, Blake enhanced the meanings of his writings through his illustrations whilst appealing to our innate pleasure in combining sensory experience, centuries before dual coding was even a thing.
One wonders, then, what Blake would make of technology today, and the array of software that, in theory, makes it possible to do in minutes what it would have taken him countless nights straining under candlelight to produce. I am, of course, referring to the possibilities afforded the modern day teacher to combine words and images to convey meaning, and I say in theory, because in practice it seems to me that not enough of us know how to properly harness the benefit of pairing words with images to help improve our students’ learning. Whether through ignorance (I doubt dual coding is included in a lot of training), or lack of basic technical know-how, (almost certainly not included), many teachers risk missing out on the additional boost to learning that adding graphics to text or audio explanations offers.
Now I know there are some who question the value of using software tools like Powerpoint in the first place, wary of how they can stifle teaching, or add an unnecessary burden to an already burdensome workload. These concerns are valid and fair. My interest, however, is not so much about the efficacy of technology use per se – I use Powerpoint if I feel it will enhance my students’ learning and avoid it if I think there are better, more economical means. This post is more about how to take advantage of the way our minds take in information, regardless of whether we teach through the medium of slides, lessons handouts or simply writing on a whiteboard and talking to our students.
What Blake intuited with his etched relief printing method, we now know a bit more about through scientific study: namely, that we can encode information from two different sources or channels at the same time. Handled correctly, rather than compromising our understanding or overloading our limited working memory capacity, the simultaneous presentation of visual information with verbal information (the spoken word or the written word converted into sound) can significantly increase our ability to learn. Such an approach, known as the modality principle, increases the chances of integrating new information into existing schema by exploiting natural cognitive processes. But even if it is the written words that are paired with images – and thus processed through the same channel – research demonstrates that done the right way, combining them still gives a significant boost to learning.
The phrases ‘handled correctly’ and ‘done the right way’ are important. Like many lessons learned from research and applied in the classroom, it is not quite as simple it often appears to apply theory to practice. In this case adding an image to a slide, or putting a graphic on a handout sound like things that everybody does already, doesn’t it? The size, placement and type of graphic, however, really matters, as does the moment in which it is deployed, the purpose of the teaching point itself and, of course, the make-up of the learners and their levels of prior knowledge. It is also important to be mindful about what we mean by words, as to our minds the spoken word (audio) and the written word (text) are not the same thing, and they are different rules that apply to each. Too often, these nuances are missed, and the results are poorly designed materials that not only run the risk of looking naff, but also fail to improve student learning or, worse still, have a negative impact on understanding.
Here is an example of where the pairing of words and images was probably not all that helpful in terms of improving student understanding. It might be entertaining, but it is unlikely to make a difference to students’ of income tax, or Einstein for that matter!
Principles for combining words and images in teaching
Below are 7 principles that I think should help teachers make better use of visual aids in their teaching. Some are concerned with the arrangement of images, whilst others focus more on the types of graphics used and how students can engage with them in different ways to maximise their learning. It is worth pointing out that whilst I have tried to give enough detail to help teachers think and plan their use of visuals, I have inevitably still had to omit a great deal of nuance to prevent the post from becoming too unwieldy!
- Pair words and images
Generally speaking, you can improve your students’ learning by adding visuals to written text that you display on slides, handouts or on the whiteboard. This principle is particularly effective for students with low levels of prior knowledge, who benefit the most from the combination of words and visuals to build coherent mental models.
- Choose images carefully
Just choosing any old graphic is unlikely to boost student learning. In fact, in many cases a poorly selected visual accompaniment to a verbal explanation might actually depress learning. The main point here is to avoid unnecessary visuals that increase extraneous demands on students’ limited working memory capacity or that distract them from their learning (e.g. school logos); well intentioned, but irrelevant pictures (e.g. actor when explaining tragedy); images designed simply to entertain or amuse.
- Keep images near text
It is generally better to place your visuals next to or as near to any written text as possible and to avoid the situation where students have to wait for the next slide, or turn over the next page to find the graphic that goes with the words that you are explaining. This is not only incredibly frustrating, but also significantly increases the demands placed on the working memory.
- Keep visuals simple
The temptation when selecting images is to find the most impressive or realistic visual example possible. However, studies repeatedly show that simple visuals are best to communicate the teaching point clearly and concisely. Implementing this principle may be made more difficult by the fact students often tend to favour elaborate and realistic visuals, even though they do not necessarily improve their learning. Unless the point you are trying to communicate demands it, though, go for simplicity over complexity, such as by opting for a flat 2 dimensional image over a more elaborate 3D option.
- Strip out the text
In some circumstances, it is better just to avoid any words on or around an image and instead simply explain the visuals verbally. This is particularly true when the images are of concepts that are pretty self-explanatory, such as introducing a picture of a new vocabulary items. In these instances having to read additional words whilst listening to an explanation puts an additional burden on the same visual-spatial channel. The same is generally true of other visuals and graphics like diagrams, where it is best to reduce any accompanying text. In situations where that diagram or explanation is lengthy or complex, however, the addition of some text is helpful in reducing cognitive load by providing memory prompts.
- Get students drawing
Studies have found a significant boost to learning when students are asked to produce drawings whilst reading textual information, much more so than other more common means of engagements such as writing summaries. It is important to ensure drawings are accurate, either by providing regular feedback on them or by showing an accurate completed picture looks like in the first place. Cognitive load can be further eased by providing partially completed drawings, such as the opening stages of a timeline or some of the connections in a causal relationship diagram. This method is particularly effective when the learning relies on complex problem solving.
- Show the connections
Use relevant visuals to help illustrate relationships and connections in your lesson material. The table below highlights the four main types of explanatory visual, and give examples of what this might look like in practice.
Four types of explanatory visuals (from: Evidence-Based Training Methods)
|Type||A visual that||Examples|
|Organizational||Illustrates qualitative relationships in the content||Tree diagram
|Relational||Summarizes quantitative data||Pie chart
Colour on a map to indicate temperatures
|Transformational||Depicts change in time or space||An animation of how equipment works
A series of line drawing with arrows to illustrate blood flow
|Interpretative||Makes abstract ideas concrete or represents principles||A simulation of feature changes by gene alterations
An animation of molecular movement with changes in temperature
In his 2009 paper ‘Research-Based Principles for Designing Multimedia Instruction’, Richard E. Mayer notes that ‘people learn more deeply from words and graphics than from words alone.’ Mayer’s assertion is obviously concerned with optimising the way the mind takes in and stores new information in an effort to improve learning, in our case for the students in our classes. Whilst Blake’s intentions for combining words with images were in many respects very different – more aesthetic and more political – he too understood the importance of harnessing the fullness of our sensory inputs to learn new things.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Thanks for reading.
Clark, R. (2015) Evidence-Based Training Methods
Clark, R. and J. Sweller et al (2006) Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load
Mayer, R.E. (2009) Research-Based Principles for Designing Multimedia Instruction