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Can Decorative Graphics Improve Learning from Text?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

04/12/2017

Numerous studies across multiple domains have shown that the addition of graphics to a text can significantly improve comprehension and retention of information. One theory behind this improvement in learning is known as the Multimedia Principle. Put simply, this principle states that when information is presented in more than one modality, the learning will be greater.

The idea behind this is that verbal and visual information are processed using different cognitive systems, so the presence of both may prompt the construction of two mental models, which may then be mapped onto each other to produce a richer model than either alone could have produced.

Improvements in learning via the addition of graphics are not guaranteed, however. The reverse of the Multimedia Principle is known as the Coherence Principle. According to this theory, graphics that are extraneous can actually hinder learning, mainly as they may cause learners to use time and cognitive resources processing the graphic instead of the text or trying to figure out how the text and the graphic are connected.

While the interactions between texts and graphics are significantly more complex than can be captured in a simple taxonomy, a way of categorizing graphics may be a good starting place for determining whether the Multimedia Principle or the Coherence Principle is more likely to be at play. Carney and Levin (2002) identified five categories of graphics: representational, organizational, interpretational, transformational, and decorative.

Representational graphics literally represent a part of the text, organizational graphics give the reader a framework for organizing and comprehending the text, interpretational graphics help clarify sections of the text that may be difficult to understand, transformational graphics act as mnemonic aids, and decorative graphics simply decorate the page. Of these five categories, decorative graphics are most often associated with potentially neutral or negative effects on learning.

But is it always the case that decorative graphics detract from learning? Danielson, Schwartz, and Lippmann (2015) reasoned that the potential efficacy of a graphic may be more than simply a function of its categorization as “decorative.” They believed that the functionality of a graphic is likely to depend on the context in which it is used. They further believed that the learner will inductively reason this context. These beliefs led them to want to investigate whether decorative graphics could have a positive influence on learning if the connections between the graphic and the text were carefully mapped.

In order to do this, they created two different metaphors to accompany a text describing the political conflict in Darfur. Since metaphors are known to be powerful tools that support the construction of mental models, the researchers chose to create graphics that represented the text metaphorically. The two graphics were designed so that one was a much stronger metaphor for the content of the text than the other. The first graphic was simply an image of a barren desert landscape. The stronger metaphor was an image of two lions of similar color and size fighting aggressively.

Study 1
In this study, 168 undergraduate students were divided randomly into three groups. Each group read the same text in an online environment. The difference between the groups was that one text was accompanied by the strongly metaphorical graphic, one by the weakly metaphorical graphic, and one by no graphic at all. Participants in each of the groups were given an equal amount of time to read (and process the graphic, if one was present) of three and a half minutes. Afterwards they were given 15 minutes to write an essay containing as much information as they could remember from the text. One week later, they returned to write another similar essay.

What were the results?

Immediately after reading the text there were no significant differences between the groups.
One week later:

• total comprehension remained reasonably stable for participants who had received the text with the strongly metaphorical graphic

• participants in the weak metaphor condition and no graphic condition experienced decay in learning, with the no graphic condition exhibiting significant decay.

Study 2

This study replicated the conditions in Study 1 with 98 undergraduates, but relaxed the time constraints. Participants read the texts in the same online environment, but at a time and place of their choosing and with no time limit for processing the text and graphics if they were present.

What were the results?

Immediately after reading the text:

• participants in the strong metaphor conditions performed significantly better than participants in the other two conditions;

• there were no differences between participants in the weak metaphor and no graphic conditions.

One week later:

• all three conditions demonstrated some level of decay of learning;

• scores declined as a function of the strength of the metaphorical correspondence with the strong metaphor condition performing significantly better.

What might this mean for our classrooms?

The results seem to indicate that even graphics that are apparently decorative can encourage the construction of richer mental models that support comprehension and memory than text without graphics, when these graphics represent the text metaphorically. The finding in Study 1, where text processing time was limited, that there was no immediately detectable difference between the groups, seems to indicate that processing a text with metaphorical graphics may require more time. When the time was limited, there may have been a cognitive trade-off between processing the text and processing the graphic. When this constraint was removed, the participants were presumably able to make the inferences necessary to incorporate both the information from the text and from the metaphorical graphic into their mental model.

The results of this study can certainly make us more aware of the need to carefully consider the relationship between a text and the graphics used to support it. Further, however, it seems that it may be a good idea to both ensure that learners have time to process graphics when they are included with a text, and while the study did not consider this, I would be very surprised if explicit instruction in the kind of thinking necessary to infer connections between a graphic and text would not also be advantageous.

This study:
Danielson, R., Schwartz, N. & Lippmann, M. 2015. Metaphorical graphics aid learning and memory. Learning and Instruction. 39: 194–205 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2015.07.004

Other sources cited:
Carney, R., & Levin, J. 2002. Pictorial illustrations still improve students’ learning from text. Educational Psychology Review 14 (1): 5–26.




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