Supporting Learning From Visual Displays

Jacqueline Wong

Visual displays are often used to relay information. They are frequently used in learning materials to explain or elaborate textual information. Renkl and Scheiter (2017) recently conducted a review to examine how visual displays can be used to instructionally support learning. The review examined the challenges learners face and the interventions that can help to overcome these challenges based on research on visual displays.

What are some of the challenges learners face?
Learners face challenges when processing visual displays due to:
a) Learner biases – Learners pay more attention to text than visual displays because they perceive text as more important and relevant.
b) Pre-requisite knowledge and skills – Learners are unable to process the information in the visual form without the required knowledge and skills.
c) Attention distribution within visual displays – Learners are attracted by perceptually salient information and they get distracted if these visuals are irrelevant to the task.  
d) Mental integration of visual displays with other external representations – Visual displays contain information to be integrated with other textual information. Learners are unable to integrate information without proper guidance and prior knowledge. 

How to optimize visual displays?
Material-oriented interventions to help learners manage complexity in visual displays:
1) Remove irrelevant details – For example, use black and white visuals instead of colourful and realist ones.
2) Use cues to direct attention to relevant information
3) Use static instead of dynamic visual displays  
4) Enable user-control visual display
5) Segment dynamic displays into meaningful units 
6) Alter the speed of dynamic displays

Material-oriented interventions to help learners integrate information across multiple representation
1) Present text and visual elements near each other to avoid split attention
2) Complement visual displays with spoken text
3) Signal related information using colour coding or labelling
4) Provide support at a deep-structure level to explain links between the multiple representations

Learner-oriented interventions
1) Training – To optimize learning from visual displays. Instructors can train learners in spatial skills, convention of diagrams (e.g. colour keys and arrows), or to draw inferences from visual displays.  
2) Pre-training – Teach learners content-related information before they transit into the actual learning phase to reduce the cognitive demands.
3) Prompts – Prompting learners help to activate strategies that learners are not capable of using at that instance and help to support sub-optimal learning processes.

Renkl, A., & Scheiter, K. (2017). Studying visual displays: How to instructionally support learning. Educational Psychology Review29(3), 599-621.


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