Learning From Visuals
The 29th Annual Conference of the International Visual Literacy Association
University Park, Pennsylvania, October 18 - 22, 1997
by Rune Pettersson
. A visual material must constantly redraw the attention to hold the interest of the viewer. Our perception varies
as a result of a number of factors. Visual information is processed quickly. Seeing is direct and effortless. Pictures
reinforce our knowledge when there is a need for them. Making and understanding visual messages is natural to a point.
The ability to read and understand pictures is learned. We must acquire visual literacy skills.
Every day we are bombarded with information via the
media: at home, in school, and at work. It is hard to avoid
information, and it is just as hard to obtain the information
that we really need. Most of the time, audio, text, and visu-
als compete for our attention. It is possible that we miss
the information that we are interested in. We always have
a “frame of reference”. New impressions are dependent
on and interpreted against the background of our previous
experience and learning, our attitudes and interests, our
needs and feelings, and the prevailing situation.
Attention to Visuals
One of the main reasons to use pictures is to
a speciﬁc material (Duchastel, 1978, 1983; Duchas-
tel and Waller, 1979; Holliday, 1980; Levin, 1981; Levie
and Lentz, 1982; Levin, Anglin, and Carney, 1987; Evans,
Watson, and Willows, 1987; Pettersson, 1993). Attention
is always subjective. We direct our attention to things that
move, are large, bold, and clear, have bright color, an
unusual shape, or a good contrast that deviate from the sur-
roundings or from familiar patterns, to what we happen
to be interested in at the moment, and to content that arouse
feelings and needs. These factors are frequently used in
advertising and propaganda. Keates (1982) noted that dis-
criminatory responses to map symbols depend on contrast
in form, dimension, and color. In the torrent of information
that bombards us, we have to
the information we
want to see or hear and we ignore the rest of the informa-
tion. Stern and Robinson (1994) see “selection” of sensory
data as the ﬁrst step of perception. However, “selection
of data” may also be seen as a part of “attention”.
When we attend to something, we select that informa-
tion for further mental processing. In view of our limited
capacity for handling simultaneous information (Miller,
1956), it is important to ﬁnd out which factors determine
the parts of the available information that will be pro-
cessed. Which stimuli do we select and why? When we
ﬁrst look at a visual, we only see what is necessary to per-
ceive. We identify objects and events in a reasonable and
meaningful manner. This is Gibson’s “principle of econ-
omy” (Gibson, 1966). All cognitive tasks place demands
on a pool of limited cognitive resources. When a task
imposes a heavy load on the cognitive system, it will in
turn interfere with learning by misdirecting attention and
limiting the remaining resources that are necessary for
construction of knowledge (Sweller et al. 1990). Clements
(1984) concluded that “the attentional process is relatively
diffuse” (page 146). Wickens (1980, 1984, 1991), and
Klapp and Netick (1988) have suggested a multiple
resource model of attention and processing. Resource
models based on individually allocated pools of resources
have been developed to explain the effects of structural
alteration and time sharing that cannot be effectively
explained by other attention models, such as structural the-
ories and capacity theories.
Vogel et al. (1986) showed that it is undeniable that
visual presentation support is persuasive. Presentations
using visual aids were 43% more persuasive than unaided
presentations. At the same time, research in the area of
reading indicates that the type of visuals that are used is
an important variable in reading comprehension (Levin et
al. 1987). However, this becomes less important in reality
since most students do not attend to the visuals unless they
are instructed to do so (Reinking, 1986; Pettersson, 1990).
Hannus (1996) used eye-movement equipment and stud-
ied how pupils picked up information while learning from
textbooks. He concluded that the learning effects of text-
book illustrations are slight because not enough attention
is paid to the illustrations in the books. Thus the learning
functions of illustrations were less than expected.
It may be concluded that our attention will not last for
long. A visual material and a presentation must constantly
redraw the attention to hold the interest of the viewer.
Attention is sometimes seen as the ﬁrst step of perception.
Perception of Visuals
The perception process is often assumed to consist of
two stages or levels. Information processing is tentative,
fast, rough, and parallel in the ﬁrst stage (Sinatra, 1986).
It comprises all kinds of analyses from physiological to
cognitive processes. A number of different properties of
a stimulus are identiﬁed simultaneously. In many
instances, one analysis is sufﬁcient. The second stage of
the information analysis is conscious, demands attention,
and it is detailed and sequential. Various hypotheses about
a stimulus are weighed against one another, and tested.
Information processing is more deﬁnite at this level.
Fleming and Levie (1978) noted over 50 principles, and
Winn (1993) listed more than 75 principles related to per-
ception. Individuals differ in the ways that they perceive
a stimulus. One person may quickly assimilate it. Another
may not pay attention at all. Human perception is sensitive
to changes in stimulation. We actually perceive
we see and hear, and much information is never used. At
the same time, we may perceive
than we see and hear.
Our brains ﬁll in missing information. Accurate identiﬁ-
cation can be made from the correct perception of a few
parts. If the system arrives at clarity, then clarity serves
as a reinforcement. Our perception of any image depends
on our previous experience, our mood, other visuals, texts
and sound, as well as our personal interests. When we look
at a visual, we also “see” different details in the visual on
different occasions. Consequently, a highly “saturated”,
information-packed message may have something new to
offer even after having been viewed many times.
Gestalt psychologists view our attempts to establish
order as an innate faculty carried out in accordance with
certain “laws”. We perceptually construct relationships,
groupings, objects, and events. We see dots, lines, areas,
light, dark, etc., in an organized way. One of the most sim-
ple perceptual organizations is that of “ﬁgure and ground”.
Some elements in a visual are selected as the ﬁgure, and
remaining elements constitute the background. The con-
text in which a visual message is presented has a major
impact on the way it is perceived. In my experience, atten-
tion is on either the sound
on the image when we view
a ﬁlm or a television program. This is even more obvious
when we look at a multi-image slide and ﬁlm presentation.
As soon as the ﬁlm starts, our attention is directed towards
the movement in the ﬁlm, away from the stills. Animation
is common in several media, like video, computer games
and on the Internet. However, movement is very powerful
and attracts our attention. Thus other information may be
totally unseen and lost.
Gestalt psychology shows that perceptually the mean-
ing of a picture depends on the relationship between the
different parts in the picture. Preble and Preble (1989)
noted that “everyday visual perception” is a continuous
flow of complex interrelations. In accordance with the
“proximity law”, we group objects and events on the basis
of their proximity to one another. Objects near each other
belong together. The eye tends to be attracted to groups
rather than to isolates. Thus several authors have recom-
mended that pictures should be put as close to the relevant
text as possible (Lidman and Lund, 1972; MacDonald-
Ross, 1977; Hartley and Burnhill, 1977; Haber and Her-
shenson, 1980; Wright, 1982; Braden, 1983; Benson,
1985; Pettersson, 1993; and Mayer et al., 1995).
It may be concluded that our perception varies as a
result of a number of factors, such as cultural and social
status, the time and stage of our development, mood, expe-
rience, memory, and other cognitive processes.
Processing of Visuals
In accordance with Gazzaniga (1967), Sperry (1973,
1982), and Sinatra (1986), perception of two- or three-
dimensional representations means parallel, simulta-
neous, holistic, and fast processing (“right brain activ-
ity”).We notice the structure ﬁrst and then the details
(Printzmetal and Banks, 1977; Navon, 1977; Antes and
Penland, 1981; Biederman, 1981). This is called
to local scanning
. We quickly ﬁnd out which details of a
picture are the most informative ones, and then we con-
centrate our attention to those parts. New impressions are
processed and interpreted against a “frame of reference”;
our previous experience, attitudes and interests. In order
to make a match between visual cues and their referents
in the learner’s cognitive schemata, translation or trans-
forming activities are needed (Salomon, 1979). Lodding
(1983) concluded that the image memory and processing
capabilities of the human mind are extremely powerful.
Bertoline, Burton, and Wiley (1992) discussed three
primary stages of
. These steps are: (1)
visual cognition, (2) visual production, and (3) visual
includes: (1) visual perception,
the ability to mentally comprehend visual information; (2)
visual memory, the ability to mentally store and retrieve
visual information; and (3) visualization, the ability to
mentally create and edit visual information.
includes (1) externalization, the ability to create
and edit visual products throughout a design process; (2)
transmission, the ability to communicate information
through visual products; and (3) reception, the ability to
comprehend responses to visual products.
includes the ability to comprehend the termination of a
Cohen, Ebeling, and Kulik (1981) made a meta-anal-
ysis of 74 studies which compared visual-based instruc-
tion with conventional instruction. They found that stu-
dents learned slightly more from visual-based instruction
than from traditional teaching, but there was typically no
difference between the two groups in regard to course
completion, student attitudes, or the correlation between
attitudes and achievement. Visuals are very useful in learn-
ing tasks that involve memory. The information received
from visuals appears to remain longer in memory than
information received from verbal information. Bagget
(1989) stated that information obtained visually is more
memorable and “bushier” (page 119): “Visual material
creates in memory far broader nets of associations for
already learned concepts. There are more connections in
the memory representation when the input is visual”.
Kozma (1991) contended that visual symbol systems are
better than verbal symbol systems (page 192): “The bush-
ier nature of representations derived from the visual sym-
bol systems are better for building mental models of the
situation than are representations based on audio-linguis-
Nickerson (1965), Shepard (1967), Standing, Conezio,
and Haber (1970), and Paivio (1971), have shown that sub-
jects are capable of accurately identifying previously seen
pictures. Haber (1979) felt that our ability to recognize pic-
tures can be described as virtually “perfect.” Over a ﬁve-
day period, Standing (1973) showed subjects 10,000
slides and found that they were able to recognize 83% on
a later occasion. According to Potter and Levy (1969), a
person only needed to look at a picture for one to two sec-
onds in order to be able to recognize it among other pictures
viewed on a subsequent occasion. Brigthouse (1939),
Haber and Erdelyi (1967), and Haber (1979) studied how
much subjects actually remembered of picture content.
Much more time was needed for people to remember pic-
tures than to merely recognize that they had seen them
before. Christianson (1990) showed subjects a series of
pictures with emotionally charged, neutral, and unusual
content. The experiments disclosed that the subjects con-
centrated their attention on the central aspect of a depicted
event, that is, the thing that surprised them when they
viewed an emotionally charged or unusual event.
Experiments with pupils in junior schools (Eklund,
1990), in intermediate schools and in junior high schools
(Backman, Berg, and Sigurdson, 1988) showed that pupils
in Sweden had a very low “pictorial capability”. At all lev-
els pupils have large difﬁculties in interpreting, as well as
in expressing picture content. Low “pictorial capability”
is largely true also for the teachers, who very often lack
both education and training in visual language and in
visual communication. This is quite remarkable since the
curricula in Sweden both assume and require all teachers
to be responsible for teaching about visuals as a means
of communication. I agree with Larsson (1991) who wrote
(page 105, in translation): “... it is important that all per-
sons involved increase their knowledge of pictures and the
function of pictures in textbooks: teachers, pupils, pub-
lishers, authors, designers, artists”. Gayer (1992) stated
that different types of visuals can be of great use in edu-
cation. She certiﬁed that it is a serious deﬁciency that many
teachers have insufﬁcient knowledge of how visuals func-
tion. We know that pictures can have a positive, a neutral,
or a negative effect on learning (Levin et al., 1987; Sims-
Knight, 1992; Winn, 1993; and Rieber, 1994).
It may be concluded that visual information is pro-
cessed fast. Our ability to recognize pictures is very good.
Pictures reinforce our knowledge when there is a need for
them. Seeing is direct and effortless. Making and under-
standing visual messages is natural to a point. The ability
to read and understand pictures is learned.
Text and Visuals
Jonassen, Campbell, and Davidson (1994) remarked
that it would be impossible to imagine an information pro-
cessing system that would be capable of decoding, and,
even less possible be capable of recognizing, a visual stim-
ulus using only the auditory senses and sensory registers.
Several researchers have noted that the human processing
system is a multi-dimensional system that is capable of
processing and using different types of information
through specialized processes (Atkinson and Shiffrin,
1968; Baddeley and Hitch, 1974; Baddeley and Lieber-
Pictures in Prose
By the mid-1970’s, it was well-established that chil-
dren’s immediate, factual recall of simple fiction was
improved when picture content was completely redun-
dant with prose content (Levin and Lesgold, 1978).
Levie and Lentz (1982) summarized the results of 155
experimental comparisons of learning from illustrated
versus non-illustrated text. Forty-six of those studies
compared learning from illustrated text material versus
learning from text alone. The average group score for the
illustrated-text groups was 36% better than for text-alone
groups. When all of the studies were considered together
Levie and Lentz (1982) presented the following nine
conclusions (pages 225–226):
1. In normal instructional situations, the addition of pic-
torial embellishments will not enhance the learning
of information in the text.
2. When illustrations provide text-redundant informa-
tion, learning information in the text that is also
shown in pictures will be facilitated.
3. The presence of text-redundant illustrations will nei-
ther help nor hinder the learning of information in the
text that is not illustrated.
4. Illustrations can help learners understand what they
read, can help learners remember what they read, and
can perform a variety of other instructional functions.
5. Illustrations can sometimes be used as effective/effi-
cient substitutes for words or as providers of extra
6. Learners may fail to make effective use of complex
illustrations unless they are prompted to do so.
7. Illustrations usually enhance learner enjoyment, and
they can be used to evoke affective reactions.
8. Illustrations may be somewhat more helpful to poor
readers than to good readers.
9. Learner-generated imaginal adjuncts are generally
less helpful than provided illustrations.
Levin et al. (1987) discussed different functions of pic-
tures used in prose. According to them, four functions are
“text-relevant.” These are called (1) representational func-
tion, (2) organizational function, (3) interpretational func-
tion, and (4) transformational function.
1. Illustrations are
when they serve to
reinforce the major narrative events in the text and
“tell” the same story, i.e., are redundant with the text.
Representational pictures add concreteness to the
prose since memory for pictorial materials is better
than memory for verbal materials.
2. Illustrations are
when they provide a
framework for a text. They add coherence to the
prose since memory for organized materials exceeds
memory for unorganized materials.
3. Illustrations are
when they clarify
passages in the text that are difficult to understand.
Interpretational pictures add comprehensibility to the
prose since materials that are initially well under-
stood are remembered better than materials that are
more poorly understood.
4. Illustrations are
when prose content
is re-coded into concrete form and related in a well-
organized context. These pictures provide readers
with a systematic means of retrieving the critical
information. Transformational illustrations are
designed to impact directly on readers’ memory.
After a meta-analysis of results from some 100 exper-
iments on functions of pictures used in prose Levin et al.
(1987) concluded that all types of text-relevant pictures
facilitate learning from reading prose. There was an
increasing learning effect from: (1) representational pic-
tures (“moderate”), (2) organizational and interpretational
pictures (“moderate to substantial”), and (3) transforma-
tional pictures (“substantial”). Levin et al. also concluded
that when illustrations are not relevant to the prose content,
no prose-learning facilitation is to be expected. On the con-
trary, there can be a negative effect. Illustrations should
not be used only for decoration in learning materials.
The PSE visual learning experiments
A huge body of experiments on learning from visual
media exist. However, many of these experiments suffer
from severe weaknesses in the experimental designs, in
the selection of materials, or in the selection of subjects
and their treatment. The main exception from this is the
“Program of Systematic Evaluation”, PSE. The PSE was
initiated in 1965 by Dr. Francis Dwyer at Penn State Uni-
versity, in the USA. Dwyer wanted to identify visual mate-
rials effective in facilitating student achievement of dif-
ferent educational objectives. Since 1965, more than
50,000 high school, college, and adult learners have par-
ticipated in more than 200 visual research studies.
Results from these studies have been reported by
Dwyer several times (1972, 1978, 1982-3, 1985, and
1994). Throughout the studies, continuity was maintained
by utilizing the same 2,000 word instructional unit on the
human heart. Visuals range from simple line drawings to
realistic photographs, in black and white as well as in color.
A variety of presentation formats, such as booklets, tele-
vision, and slide-audiotape presentations have been used.
The heart content was selected because of its motivational
value, and because it permitted evaluation of different
types of educational objectives. Test formats exist in both
verbal and visual versions. Students’ knowledge of spe-
ciﬁc facts was measured with a terminology test. An iden-
tiﬁcation test measured students’ ability to identify posi-
tions of the different parts within the heart. Students’
ability to reproduce the parts of the heart in their correct
contexts was measured with a drawing test. A compre-
hension test measured the students’ total understanding
of the function of the heart. It was found that visual testing
is a valid strategy for assessing students’ learning from
visualized instruction. According to Dwyer (1985) the
effectiveness of a
visual learning environment
dependent on the following factors:
• The amount of realistic detail in the visuals.
• The method of presentation of the visuals.
• Student characteristics, such as intelligence and prior
knowledge of the subject matter.
• Educational objectives.
• The technique used to focus student attention on the
essential learning characteristics.
• The type of test format (verbal/visual, etc.) used for
The PSE has progressed through three phases. The
results substantiate the fact that the human being is a very
complex organism and that
the variables which influence
learning are extremely complex
(Dwyer, 1994). During
the ﬁrst phase of the PSE the basic conceptual rationale
for the program was developed (Dwyer, 1972). In my view
it is possible to draw some general conclusions from these
• When visual discrimination is needed, pictures are
helpful in identifying the various parts of the heart.
The use of visuals does not always automatically
improve the achievements of the learners. For some
objectives text is enough.
• The effectiveness of a visual depends on the medium,
on the type of information, and also on the amount of
time that learners are permitted to interact with the
• All types of visuals are not equally effective. Line
drawings are most effective in formats where the
learner’s study time is limited. More realistic ver-
sions of art work, however, may be more effective in
formats where unlimited study time is allowed.
• The realism continuum is not an effective predictor
of learning efﬁciency for all types of educational
objectives. An increase in the amount of realistic
detail will not produce a corresponding increase in
• Increasing the size of illustrations by projecting them
does not automatically improve their effectiveness in
facilitating the achievement of the learners.
• Aesthetically pleasing visuals may deceive the learn-
ers about their instructional value.
• The same visuals are not equally effective for learn-
ers in different grade levels, and for learners with dif-
ferent prior knowledge.
• At high school boys and girls learn equally well from
visuals when they are used to complement oral
• For some learners and for some educational objec-
tives, color improves the achievement of the learners.
However, in some cases the added cost of color may
not be justiﬁed.
• Using questions to focus the attention of the learners
on the relevant visual learning cues does not improve
the instructional potential of the illustrations.
In the second phase (Dwyer, 1978) the research ﬁndings
emphasize the importance of the interrelatedness of vari-
ables (for example the degree of realism, cueing tech-
niques, the level of educational objectives, individual dif-
ferences, the method of presentation, and the testing
format) associated with the effective use of visual mate-
rials. In my view, it is also possible to draw some general
conclusions from these experiments:
• Visuals designed to complement oral instruction does
not always automatically improve the achievement of
• For certain types of educational objectives and for
certain types of learners, oral instruction without
visualization is as effective as visualized instruction.
• All types of cueing techniques do not equally facili-
tate the instructional effectiveness of different types
of visual illustrations in oral instruction.
In the third phase (Dwyer, 1994) the main topic of the
research focused on how different independent variables
may be manipulated and combined to facilitate increased
student learning from visualized instruction. Also here it
is possible to draw some general conclusions:
• In computer-based instruction achievement is
enhanced when embedded cueing strategies are inte-
• Visuals with varied degrees of realistic detail can be
used to reduce differences in the performance of
learners with different levels of prior knowledge of
the subject matter.
• Pre-program question cueing is more effective than
motion and arrows in facilitating student achieve-
ment of speciﬁc educational objectives.
• Color coding improves attention, learner motivation,
• Imagery strategies involving network or information
chunking are effective in assisting learners to process
• Externally-paced methods of pacing computer-based
instruction were more effective in promoting learner
achievement than self-paced methods.
• Different rehearsal strategies impact differentially in
facilitating student achievement of different educa-
• Learners who are given quality interaction opportu-
nities spend more time on learning, and achieve sig-
niﬁcantly more on tests measuring speciﬁc educa-
According to Dwyer (1994) the Program of Systematic
Evaluation will be multi-focused in the future. Dwyer and
his associates will continue to explore the instructional
effects of intervening variables. Eventually, the PSE will
develop prescriptive guidelines for the production of
effective visual learning materials.
Oral presentations and visuals
Yarbus (1967) found that instructions given prior to
viewing determined what segments of the picture received
the most attention. The things we wish to see in a picture
have a major impact on the location of eye ﬁxations. Where
we look and why we look there determine what we see.
Research concerning the effects of verbal as well as visual
modalities shows that children pay more attention to visual
than to verbal information. Zuckerman et al. (1978) found
that children tend to be more accurate in recognizing visual
than auditory segments in television commercials. Hayes
and Birnbaum (1980) showed pre-school children car-
toons in which the audio track either matched or mis-
matched the visual information. In both cases, children
had a higher retention of the visual than of the auditory
information. Pezdek and Stevens (1984) found that when
children had to choose which of two incompatible chan-
nels to process, they preferred the video channel. The audi-
tory information sustains attention and facilitates com-
prehension. Pezdek and Hartmann (1983) found that video
without sound reduced comprehension among preschool
children. Rolandelli et al. (1985) concluded that children
used the auditory component of television to direct atten-
tion to important visual information, as well as to process
auditory, especially verbal, content.
It may be concluded that visual materials constantly
must redraw the attention in order to hold the interest of
the viewer. Our perception varies as a result of a number
of factors. Visual information is processed quickly. Seeing
is direct and effortless. However, we must learn to “read
pictures” in order to acquire visual literacy skills, the abil-
ity to interpret visual messages accurately and to create
such messages. Pictures reinforce our knowledge when
there is a need for them, when they do better than text.
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