Teaching through visual literacy: Using pictures to facilitate generative learning

Dr. Mayer's conclusions about the relationship between multimedia and learning are well-recognized principals of learning. Their efficacy has been justified for (likely) hundreds of years, even before the pseudoscientific psychological research confirmed it. What amounts to Mayer's understanding of multimedia's importance has even been codified in the common core:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.7
Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).

So yes, it's been well established that graphics, given the correct spatial arrangement, appropriate level of detail, and paired with directly related text, increase authentic and active learning. I don't want to focus on its merit, because its merit was established before Mayer synthesized this research. I want to focus on how Mayer's conclusions could be applied to supporting students with learning differences.

Mayer describes the role of working memory in the learning process and the acquisition of conceptual understanding. In Mayer's model, the working memory serves as a series of processes that integrate sensory information in a way that is parsimonious. When a great deal of extraneous processing is required, the working memory is overloaded and learning is hindered. 

Cognitive psychologists who have studied working memory have reliably marked its limits for us. Our working memory, in comparison to short- or long-term memory, is markedly small and fleeting; only a few pieces of information can be reliably held in our working memory at any given time, and their persistence there is fleeting. For students with learning differences accompanied by deficits and weaknesses in working memory, integrating pieces of information is even more difficult. 

When we apply Mayer's principles of learning, we should do it with the understanding that for some students, their ability to integrate information is limited by impacts on their working memory. When we present information, it is especially important for these students that we present it in smaller, discrete chunks.

One way this could be achieved is by using a strategy of examining graphics that involves starting small, and gradually getting larger, by increasing the spatial scale.

Let me give an example: If you were presenting a diagram that shows the water cycle, you could crop the diagram so that only a small, singular portion is visible. In this example, maybe you present part of the diagram that shows water falling as rain. This could be presented on one slide. On the next slide, another image would be presented, which includes the elements of the first image, plus something else in addition. So now, you're showing the rain, and maybe the rain landing in a pond or river. Then, on the thrid slide, you show the groundwater moving to a different location. 

This method works withing Mayer's paradigm because it simplifies information in smaller, quantized units that are easier for students to process. 

Another good multimedia teaching strategy is to present pictures side-by-side so that students can compare and draw connections between the two. Even for a student with limited language skills, they will have vocabulary at some level that in even the most rudimentary way describes the visual they are seeing. This is the core of active processing. For the generative processing component, students could use language and information acquired in instruction to refine their initial descriptions or comparisons of the pictures. In this way, they already have something observable, familiar, and concrete to attach their language to. This is much more effective for ELL students and students with learning differences than simply asking them to answer a question using scientific language and vocabulary. 

Paolo Friere knew that visual literacy presupposes literacy, understanding, and learning. Students with a picture (or animation, b/c this is multimedia) to connect their language and understanding to, especially if the picture is grounded in something they have seen or experienced in their own lives, tend to be more active participants in their own learning, generating connections rather than reciting them.

    • Alexa Tanglis
      Alexa Tanglis

      Even using broken up, simplified diagrams my students struggle with making connections and putting their observations into coherent thoughts that go beyond just physical descriptions.  Although I am giving them the thought provoking connection questions as a scaffold I wonder when they will be able to do this on their own.  That being said, I still think breaking up diagrams and showing two different depictions of the same thing is valuable so students can pick up on slight differences and use this as a topic of discussion.  

      • Lisa Berlinger
        Lisa Berlinger

        Tyler, I really like your idea of breaking down the water cycle. I presented it as one big system and the students did find this confusing. I will try showing section by section when we get a chance to review. Thanks!

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