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Six ways visuals help learning

Written by: Oliver Caviglioli
2 min read

Whenever I talk about the power of visuals, I am very keen for the audience to understand I am not referring to particular people, or to the myth of ‘visual learners’. However, we now know from research more about how learning occurs, so we can identify specific ways in which visuals support psychological processes.  In this article, I reflect on seven ideas, many of which are drawn from a 500-page tome on cognitive psychology research called Graphics for Learning, by Ruth Colvin Clark and Chopeta Lyons. Clark (Clark and Lyons, 2010) has worked with John Sweller and Richard Mayer, both luminaries belatedly discovered by the current generation of teachers.


1: Visuals support attention

When visuals are not merely decorative or entertaining, they can be used to bring essential information to the for to the fore, for example through visuals such as numbering and arrows, and to draw attention to important elements. This can help avoid the burden of ‘split’ or ‘divided attention’; when text is far away from the visual, or vice versa, the viewer has to expend considerable mental energy in keeping one in mind while attending to the other, increasing cognitive load.

2: Visuals help activate or build prior knowledge

By providing a visual overview of the process, visuals help trigger recognition and anticipate future content. This merging of past and future imagery helps connect to prior learning and assimilate future information.

3: Visuals help minimise cognitive load

Cognitive load is when working memory is overloaded and cannot process any more incoming information (Sweller, 1988). For this reason, photographs and videos can often be counter-productive, and simple line drawings are superior in conveying precise information. Background, or irrelevant detail, can distract, confuse or overwhelm the viewer. Additionally, some people are tempted to use what are termed decorative visuals, such as clip art, in an attempt to seduce students into taking an interest in the topic at hand. This, too, is counter-productive. It diverts attention away from the lesson’s aims and, as a consequence, confuses and overloads.

4: Visuals help build mental models

Well-designed visuals help the viewer construct new memories in their long-term storage, supporting a deeper understanding of the concepts and procedures involved. By locating all the elements on one page — viewed in one go — visuals present a coherent image that is more easily assimilated and stored away for future reference.

5: Visuals help support transfer of learning

The simpler the visual model, the easier it is to retain it in memory for transfer into practice. By focusing solely on those aspects which are directly relevant, the visual model helps the viewer identify key components necessary for deeper understanding.

6: Visuals make use of dual coding

The idea of ‘dual coding’ theory (Paivio, 1986) is that we can use our visual and auditory channels simultaneously and, significantly, separately. This means that we can absorb more information than is normally considered possible – we avoid the dreaded cognitive load.


This article is based on articles originally published on 

Images reproduced with kind permission of  ©



Clark R and Lyons C (2010) Graphics for Learning: Proven Guidelines for Planning, Designing, and Evaluating Visuals in Training Materials. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Paivio A (1986) Mental representations: A Dual Coding Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sweller J (1988) Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science 12: 257–285.
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      Author(s): Bill Lucas