Using images to facilitate students’ learning

Surely, we have all heard the saying “An image is worth a thousand words”. Although it is easy to see how this is the case in the news, what about education? Do images make it easier for pupils to understand a new concept and learn it?

From a neuroscience point of view, the answer is yes. In the 1990s, researcher Allan Pavio proposed something called the Dual-Coding Theory. In a nutshell, he suggested that it is easier for our brain to process and retain information if that information combines verbal and non-verbal elements.

Imagine you are teaching a class of GCSE PE and covering a topic related to anatomy. You can give your 14-year-old students a verbal explanation like the one below…

Or you can show them a mind map like this…

Which one do you think will be more effective?

Similarly, you can try to describe the exact location of the cerebellum… or you can show them a diagram, like the one below. Which one is easier for them not only to understand but also to remember during the exams?

It seems obvious that, in these cases, the mind map and the diagram help. But why?

In the brain, our thoughts and processing of information happen in what is called Working Memory. The thing about working memory is that it an extremely limited resource. There is only so much we can deal with at one time when trying to understand something or solve a problem. Combining words with images help to reduce the load on students working memory, making it easier for them to access that information and store that long-term.

However, when using images, it is very important not to cause the opposite effect. That is, increase the load. Ideally, images and words should complement each other. When they are redundant or unconnected, students end up having to deal with even more information than before, which will reduce their ability to make sense of all that. For example, showing students a video and talking over that video, while they also take notes at the same time, is probably not a good strategy. It is very hard for them to assimilate what comes from the video and from you at the same time, and also be able to translate that to their own notes.

A classic piece of research from the University of California in Santa Barbara tested how much images help students’ memory when they were used in a complementary way with the text pupils were studying. Students were divided into three groups that learned about applied physics concepts (eg. how does an air pump work?). One group saw only diagrams explaining the concepts and applications, one group only read about it, and the other group had both words and images together. The results of this experiment were very clear. The group that had access to verbal and visual information performed at least 50% better in the exam than the other two groups.

Images, videos, animations, diagrams, mind maps, photographs, timelines, colour-coded information… when properly combined with the verbal or oral explanations can have a huge impact on your students’ learning.

Seneca’s Revision Platform

With that in mind, Seneca developed a free online revision platform that is heavily visual and engaging. On top of the mentioned in the above paragraph, the platform also helps students to use the mind palace technique and presents their scores in a visual and straightforward way.

Covering GCSE PE in different exam boards, Seneca is having a massive positive influence on pupils’ understanding of content all over the country. Teachers and students can use it all for free, as well as Seneca’s automated marking features, which hopefully reduce teachers’ workload.

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Written by @PE4Learning
Founder of PE4Learning - Sharing Creative PE Ideas and Resources
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